Addressing Health Disparities

A nurse takes the blood pressure of an elderly man. Both are African-American.

Diseases and health conditions can affect different groups of people at different rates and degrees of severity. NICHD has a long history of conducting and supporting research on health disparities in a variety of contexts.

NICHD-supported researchers reported that known risk factors, such as older maternal age, maternal obesity, and cesarean delivery, may account for only part of the increasing U.S. rate of severe maternal morbidity—life-threatening maternal complications associated with childbirth. The same researchers, with additional colleagues, published a related study showing that rates of severe maternal morbidity continue to vary by race and ethnicity in the United States and the rates have persisted and sharply increased among all racial and ethnic groups. The study, which used data from California collected between 1997 and 2014, found that severe maternal morbidity was highest among non-Hispanic black women, followed by non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native women, non-Hispanic Asian or Pacific Islander women, and Hispanic women. Severe maternal morbidity was lowest among non-Hispanic white women. The authors note that more research is needed to reduce maternal morbidity rates and to find causes for racial and ethnic disparities.

Preterm birth occurs when a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. An NICHD-supported study identified differences in vaginal bacteria that may raise the risk of preterm birth among pregnant African American women, who are more likely than white women to deliver preterm. The findings could be a first step toward the development of a screening test for early identification of preterm birth risk.

NIH scientists reported new links between genetics and blood pressure among people of African descent. High blood pressure increases a person’s risk for heart disease and stroke, is more common among African Americans, and tends to occur at a younger age in African Americans. Using data from the United States and United Kingdom, the study team linked 17 variants of the gene ARMC5 to high blood pressure. The findings suggest that ARMC5 may play an important role in regulating blood pressure in people of African descent, perhaps through its involvement with key hormones that regulate blood pressure.

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