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Military study finds black service members more likely to have some heart conditions

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A new Defense Department study found that black service members suffer from high blood pressure and abnormal blood sugar levels at rates higher than their peers — a discovery that mirrors the prevalence of those conditions in the civilian African-American community but has confounded those trying to figure out why.

An Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center report released in December said black active-duty troops were diagnosed from 2003 to 2012 with high blood pressure at a rate nearly 50 percent higher than troops of other races.

They also had rates of abnormal blood sugar and diabetes diagnoses up to twice that of service members of other races combined.

In the general civilian population, blacks also are disproportionately affected by high blood pressure, pre-diabetes and diabetes, but the conditions often are attributed to poverty and inadequate access to health care.

The military population, with universal health care, yearly required physicals and economic stability, was thought to be shielded from factors that would increase these cardiovascular risk factors.

But the results show otherwise, indicating that other influences are in play, according to Army Col. William Corr, deputy director for epidemiology and analysis at the AFHSC.

“We would expect to see less disparity in hypertension rates across racial groups due to equal access to health care and equitable social and economic status,” Corr said. “Continued research examining this disparity is warranted and may favorably impact all service members’ long-term health.”

The AFHSC study, based on the medical records of military personnel, examined the prevalence of five risk factors for heart attack and stroke: hypertension, high cholesterol, obesity, abnormal blood sugar levels and diabetes.

Of the five, high cholesterol accounted for the most diagnoses from 2003 to 2012, with 300,340 cases among all troops. Ninety percent of those diagnosed were men.

Obesity ranked second, with 235,407 cases; and high blood pressure third, with 230,000 cases during the monitoring period.

In general, rates of diagnoses for all conditions rose with age. Over time, incidence rates of abnormal glucose metabolism rose sharply while the others fluctuated.

Diabetes affected the least number of troops: Just 13,901 service members were diagnosed from 2003 to 2012 with diabetes, more than half of whom were over age 35.

Exercise makes difference

The findings are important because high blood pressure and obesity are major risk factors for heart attack and stroke and are controllable conditions through lifestyle changes and treatment, researchers said.

Some studies show that aerobic exercise can lower systolic blood pressure — the upper number of blood pressure readings — by eight to 10 points and diastolic from six to 10 points.

Other studies have shown that weightlifting or other resistance exercise also can have an effect, reducing blood pressure readings by 2 percent to 4 percent.

Food and smoking

But exercise isn’t the only solution; military personnel also can ward off these precursors to heart attack and stroke by not smoking and eating healthy.

“Increased surveillance and control of these risk factors have the potential to favorably impact service members’ long-term health, thereby improving their quality of life and potentially reducing future medical costs,” the researchers noted.

Overall, military personnel are healthier than the general population. A 2011 Defense Department survey of troops showed that 75 percent of service members exercise, rates nearly double that of civilians. They also have lower rates of obesity and higher rates of healthy weight.

But active-duty personnel fall short in their rates of smoking: 24 percent of troops said they smoke, according to the survey. About 19 percent of the civilian population smokes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Troops motivated to change

The AFHSC analysts said it’s never too late for active-duty personnel to change habits and ward off life-threatening conditions that can lead to heart attacks, heart failure and irregular heart beat.

“Because service members undergo frequent and routine periodic health assessments, there are multiple opportunities to assess, diagnose and treat cardiovascular disease risk factors,” the report said.

From 1998 to 2012, 1,123 service members, including 25 under age 20 and 435 over age 40, died from heart attacks or heart conditions.

Patricia Kime is the health reporter for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.

Patricia Kime

Patricia Kime is a health writer for Military Times. Reach her at pkime@militarytimes.com.