African-American Men’s Health: A State of Emergency

Dec 15, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by Roland J. Thorpe, Jr.

Roland J. Thorpe, Jr., PhD, MS, is an assistant professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Program for Research on Men’s Health at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions. The first RWJF Scholars Forum: Disparities, Resilience, and Building a Culture of Health was held December 5th. The conversation continues here on the RWJF Human Capital Blog.

Scholars Forum 2014 Logo: Disparities, Resilience, and Building a Culture of Health.

Nearly half a century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Yet decades later, only modest progress has been made to reduce the pervasive race- and sex-based disparities that exist in this country. African-American men who are at the intersection of race and sex have a worse health profile than other race/sex groups.  This is dramatically evidenced by the trend in life expectancy.

For example, African-American life expectancy has been the lowest compared to other groups ever since these data have been collected. Today the lifespan of African-American men is about six years shorter than that of white men.  Furthermore, a study from the Program for Research on Men’s Health at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions provides a financial perspective around this issue.

The study, which looked at the economic impact of health disparities among U.S. men, found that between 2006 and 2009 African-American men incurred a total of $341.8 billion in excess medical costs due to health inequalities. That mind-boggling number is the sum of the direct medical expenditures over the four-year period attributable to health disparities among African-American men ($24.2 billion) and the indirect costs associated with lower worker productivity due to illness ($13.9 billion) and premature death ($303.7 billion).

The study estimated these costs for African-American, Asian, Hispanic and white men, and found that 100 percent of the excess direct medical costs and 72 percent of the indirect costs associated with health disparities were incurred by African-American men. These findings reflect one of the longest-standing and most misunderstood issues facing the country: that African-American men die younger and live sicker. But the question is WHY?

Now there are a number of proposed reasons for the premature deaths among African-American men, including social determinants of health such as poorer education, low-wage jobs, high crime neighborhoods, and inadequate housing.  Many of these are facilitated by institutional racism. But how do you address institutional racism, or individual racism for that matter?  What should be done so that African-American men are no longer subject to race-related situations that lead to premature mortality?

Dr. King’s oft-quoted words, first spoken nearly 50 years ago, stand as a stark reminder of how far we still have to go to achieve health and social equality, particularly for African-American men in this country.  Indeed, some progress has been made—for example, the landmark Affordable Care Act, while still in the nascent stages of implementation, contains important provisions to allow people access to health care. But relief can’t come soon enough for African-American men.  

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.