John Singleton, dead at 51. That hit hard. He made impactful movies about being young and black, movies full of the complexity and humanity Hollywood rarely made about black life. One of those movies, “Boyz N The Hood,” is an American classic.
Singleton was about the same age as me. Same race. Same generation. Same hypertension diagnosis.
When I heard on Monday that Singleton, the father of seven, had died of a stroke he had suffered a couple weeks earlier and that he had been recently been diagnosed with hypertension, I stopped in my tracks.
During a visit to a specialist doctor in March, the nurse measured my blood pressure at 173/120.
My doc came in, reviewed my chart and got straight to business. “Your blood pressure is horrible. I mean really bad,” he said. “You’re in heart attack, stroke territory. If you’re lucky enough to live, you’ll probably be confined to a bed with a feeding tube in your mouth for the rest of your life. Have I scared you sufficiently?”
I found out that day that I have hypertension. Not to be overly dramatic, but my numbers were bad enough that had I not gone to the doctor that day, who knows, I might not be here writing this essay today. I had just turned 52 the previous week.
In an NBC.com article posted this week under the title “John Singleton’s family urges black men to get their blood pressure checked,” physician Shamard Charles wrote about the disproportionate dangers of hypertension for African American men.
For perspective on how serious my situation was, consider this line from Charles’s piece: “If blood pressure reaches 180/120 or higher — and either number in the blood pressure reading counts — people are in hypertensive crisis, with need for immediate treatment or hospitalization.”
My diastolic number (the second number) was in emergency range, and my systolic number (the first one) was close. My doctor did not send me to the hospital. But he directed me to go straight to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription and told me to get an appointment with my general practitioner.
What is crazy is I did not feel bad that day I got the news from my specialist. That is why high blood pressure is known as the “silent killer.”
A groundbreaking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in 2010 showed African American men suffering disproportionately from elevated blood pressure. The percentage for black men with high blood pressure was 26.5 percent, compared with 17.4 percent and 15.3 percent for white and Mexican American men, respectively. (At 23.9 percent for African American women, the numbers were slightly better than for black men.)
The good news in that study was the percentages of men of all races with hypertension had declined since the 1980s. The bad news is, the disparity continues to exist for black men. Why?
Some of the study’s conclusions about higher genetic vulnerability, and lack of access to insurance and high-quality health care, are not surprising. But some were fascinating and worth greater conversation, including the impact of perceived racism.
“We examined the results from studies concerning the effects of racism, attitudes toward hypertension, socioeconomic status, access to care, health insurance, quality of care, and comorbidities on hypertension rates among African American men,” the study reads. “Several studies found an association between racism and higher blood pressure levels in African American men.”
On Monday when the Singleton news hit, I posted something on Facebook about my shock. One of my friends, another black man, responded: “I have this image in my head of a political cartoon in which a bunch of 50-something men are sitting around on a porch, ‘pouring one out’ for their homie who died of the epidemic of the (middle) age — not gang and gun violence, but hypertension and stroke.”
“We’d be pouring out a lot of liquor,” I responded.
Literally the day after my diagnosis, news hit that rising hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Nipsey Hussle, who had rapped powerfully about personal and community empowerment, was killed in a hail of gunfire in South Central, allegedly at the hands of some reprobate whom Nipsey had called a “snitch.”
Nipsey’s death evoked memories of a character from “Boyz N The Hood,” Ricky, a young South Central man determined to rise above the violence of his surroundings only to be gunned down in similarly senseless fashion.
If the scourge of violence does not get you, wait a few decades, and the scourge of health inequities just might. A black man in the United States lives on average 72 years — about nine years less than the average for white women, according to 2018 statistics from the CDC.
Part of that has to do with violence. And part has to do with hypertension and other chronic diseases.
I had my second follow up appointment with my family doctor Friday morning, and there is good news: My numbers are down to 138/92, which doc said is great improvement. The gold standard is 120/80, so I’ve still got work to do. But I have moved significantly in the right direction in just over a month of taking my meds, changing my diet and drinking less. I am also getting light exercise, mostly taking my dog on long trail walks four or five times a week. Goal is to ramp back up to serious gym workouts.
Just those few things changed my numbers. I share this to say, it is not all that hard to improve your health.
As the father of three black boys, I worry constantly about their safety and finding their way in a world that often seems heartless and unforgiving. Our neighborhood in a leafy suburb of Washington is worlds away from South Central. But living in the suburbs does not eliminate risk for young black men.
Nor apparently for middle-aged black men, for very different reasons. It took my own scare and the death of an admired celebrity to remind me that none of us is guaranteed another day. And that I need to take care of myself so I can have many more of those days to impart these lessons to my own boys.