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Minorities More Likely to be Unaware of Having Diabetes or Hypertension

UAlbany economists' study reveals racial/ethnic disparities in awareness of chronic diseases

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ALBANY, N.Y. (February 02, 2011) -- Blacks and Latinos in America are more likely to be unaware they have diabetes than whites, according to a study by University at Albany researchers.

And while a relatively greater number of African-Americans receive treatment for hypertension, those who are untreated still are disproportionately unaware of having the condition, compared to individuals from other racial and ethnic groups.

African American woman speaking to doctor

Early awareness of having a chronic health condition, say the study's authors, is an aspect of health knowledge that influences an individual's ability to manage the progression of a disease.

In "Beware of Unawareness: Racial Ethnic Disparities in Awareness of Chronic Diseases," UAlbany economists Kajal Lahiri and Pinka Chatterji discovered that a larger percentage of minorities with undiagnosed diseases were not aware they have the disease, a condition which ultimately affects not only individuals and families, but also impacts the nation's health care system and economy.

The study was funded by a $1.1 million grant, part of a $6.8 million award from the National Institutes of Health to the University's Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities to advance research aimed at eliminating health inequalities.

"The incidence of these chronic illnesses is steadily increasing in the U.S., and is more so for minorities. The economic implication of continuing unawareness among all segments of the population, particularly for African-Americans and Hispanics, is truly staggering," said Distinguished Professor Kajal Lahiri.

According to recent studies, nearly 15 percent of Americans have undiagnosed hypertension, diabetes, or high cholesterol, and African-Americans are significantly more likely than other ethnic groups to have more than one of these conditions. Currently the direct health costs and indirect costs such as lost production due to diabetes and hypertension exceed $250 billion annually.

"The large number of minorities being treated for diabetes and hypertension may lead to the conclusion that awareness of chronic illness is high among minorities," said Pinka Chatterji. "However, if we limit our analysis to untreated individuals, we find that significant disparities persist along racial and ethnic lines in awareness of these serious conditions."

Without early preventative intervention, the course of a chronic disease is a continuum from the disease-free state to asymptomatic biological change, clinical illness, and ultimately death. Due to the long latency periods of hypertension and diabetes, early recognition and treatment of chronic illnesses is critical for preventing a rapid progression of the condition to disability.

Early awareness of having a chronic health condition, say the study's authors, is an aspect of health knowledge that influences an individual's ability to manage the progression of a disease. The lack of awareness may contribute to health disparities and, ultimately, greater cost to the health care system.

The research found that minority individuals are in some cases 10 percentage points less likely than non-Latino whites to be aware of having a chronic illness.

The study's data were taken from the national Health and Retirement Survey (HRS), which collects economic and health data on people over 50 years old.  The survey, which is conducted every two years, gathers extensive health information, including results from health examinations and blood tests administered during the review. The study focused on 8,051 HRS respondents who were eligible for the health examination and blood tests in 2006 and re-interviewed in 2008.

The study was published as a National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc. Working Paper. NBER is widely-disseminated publication series that showcases new findings in applied economics prior to publication in a journal.