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21st January, 20216 min read

Black, African and Caribbean health: what you need to know

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Claire Fielden
Last reviewed: 08/01/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Did you know that some illnesses or conditions occur more often in certain ethnic groups? With this in mind, it’s a good idea to think about your background and culture when you’re looking at your overall health.

You won’t definitely get a disease just because it’s more common for people with your ethnic background – it’s just that your risk may be a bit higher than that of people who have a different background.

Read on to find out what health conditions may be more likely to affect you if you’re Black, African and Caribbean, and what you can do to help lower your risk.

What kinds of people are classed as Black, African and Caribbean?

If you’re Black, African and Caribbean, you originate from Africa or the Caribbean and have black skin. Other classifications commonly used include:

  • Black African
  • Black Caribbean

Some people have a mixed ethnic background – for example, if one of your parents (second generation) or grandparents (third generation) is Black and from Africa or the Caribbean. Common classifications include:

  • Black African and white
  • Black Caribbean and white

What health conditions can affect you if you are Black, African and Caribbean?

Your culture and lifestyle choices can play a part in whether you get certain health problems. For example, some cultures may tend to smoke more or drink more alcohol, which is bad for your health, while others may commonly eat low-fat diets, which can be good for your health.

If you know that people of your ethnic background are more likely to get a particular illness or condition, then you may be able to reduce your risk with lifestyle choices.

If you’re Black, African and Caribbean, you could be at higher risk of the following health conditions.

High blood pressure

Your blood pressure is the pressure on your arteries when your heart pumps blood through them and around your body. It naturally goes up and down every day, depending on what you’re doing. But if your blood pressure is high all the time, it can lead to serious problems.

Black, African and Caribbean people have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure than other ethnic groups. It’s not clear why, but it may be a combination of genetics and lifestyle choices. High blood pressure can lead to heart disease or stroke, so it’s important to have your blood pressure checked regularly.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is a condition where either your body isn’t making enough of a hormone called insulin, or it can’t use the insulin it has made. This causes sugar (glucose) to stay in your blood instead of being used by your body for energy. Over time, high blood sugar can damage your arteries, which could lead to a heart attack or stroke.

As with high blood pressure, it’s not understood why Black, African and Caribbean people are more likely to get type 2 diabetes. It can run in families, but it can also be due to lifestyle factors, such as being overweight.

Sickle cell disease

Sickle cell disease is a group of genetic (inherited) health conditions that affect red blood cells, and it’s more common in people with Black, African and Caribbean backgrounds. If both your parents are carriers of the sickle cell gene (and they may not even know it), there’s a 1 in 4 chance you’ll be born with sickle cell disease.

If you have sickle cell disease, your body makes oddly shaped red blood cells, which don’t live as long as healthy blood cells and can cause problems by blocking blood vessels. The most serious type is called sickle cell anaemia.

Sickle cell disease is a serious and lifelong condition, which can lead to other health problems. It can only be cured by a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, but these aren’t done very often because they’re risky procedures. Usually, other treatments and self-care measures – such as antibiotics or painkillers – are used to manage symptoms.

If you have sickle cell disease, your doctor will help you work out a treatment plan that’s right for you. And if you’re worried that you or someone in your family might be carrying the sickle cell gene, you can ask your doctor for a blood test to find out.

What can I do to reduce my risk?

While there are some risk factors that you can’t control, such as your age or family history, making some lifestyle changes can help to lower your risk of certain health conditions.

Physical health

Looking after yourself by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a healthy diet and taking regular exercise can lower your risk of both high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Many foods eaten in traditional African and Caribbean diets are good for health, such as sweet potatoes, leafy green vegetables, yams and beans. But some dishes, such as fried foods, palm oil-based soups and saltfish, are high in saturated fat and salt. And the way you cook also affects a food’s fat content. Try swapping palm and coconut oil for rapeseed oil, and grilling instead of frying food.

Mental health

Anyone can experience mental health issues, but cultural factors can sometimes be involved. For example, fear, shame and a lack of culturally sensitive treatment may stop some Black, African and Caribbean people from accessing support.

Speaking to someone you trust is usually the first step to getting the help you need. You may be able to find an organisation that provides mental-health support for people with Black, African and Caribbean backgrounds. Some people find that asking to speak to a healthcare professional who has the same background can help, too.

Key points

  • people who are Black, African and Caribbean originate from Africa or the Caribbean and have black skin
  • Black, African and Caribbean people may be at greater risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and sickle cell disease
  • a healthy lifestyle can help reduce the risk of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes
  • it can be useful to talk about mental health problems with someone who shares your background
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