Black men get healthy earful

If the second annual African-American Men's Health Forum had been the 30th annual, maybe the forum wouldn't have been as necessary.

The message stressed at the forum Saturday at the Brookland Banquet and Conference Center in West Columbia was that African-American men need to eat healthier, exercise more, get health screenings, visit doctors and be willing to participate in medical research.

Only in recent years have the health community, churches and community groups come together to stress that those steps can reduce the disparities that result in black men living 7.1 fewer years than other racial groups and being three times more likely to die from colon cancer and five times more likely to die of HIV-AIDS than white men.

"We can wipe out many of the things we're talking about today," Vince Ford, vice president for community services for Palmetto Health, said to a banquet room full of mostly African-American men. "We have the technology. We have the skill. But do we have the will to do it?"

The forum, organized by the American Cancer Society, was designed in part to educate health missionaries to head back to their home communities. Those who took part also were offered simple screenings for high blood pressure, diabetes, prostate cancer and HIV-AIDS.

Stanley Coleman of Ridgeway was among those taking advantage of the opportunity.

"Today's my birthday," Coleman said. "I'm 51 years old, and I don't go to the doctor a lot. I just want to make sure I don't have some of these things.

"You know a lot of people say they feel perfectly healthy, and they're really dying."

African-American men need to overcome barriers of time, cost, fear, mistrust and denial, said Dr. Marvella Ford, associate director of health disparities research at the Medical University of South Carolina. Improvements start with visiting doctors more often and listening to them, she said.

Dr. Thaddeus Bell, a family practice physician in Charleston and founder of the organization Closing the Gap in Health Care, referred to diabetes as a tsunami that already has hit South Carolina. And the rise in childhood obesity hints of another diabetes tsunami on the way.

Studies show 44 percent of African-American men in the state are overweight, including the 24 percent considered obese. And obesity is a such a major factor in diabetes it could be called "diabesity," Bell said.

Bell said lifestyle changes are required to slow the wave. African-American men need to exercise more, eat smaller portion sizes, stop smoking and stop drinking alcohol to excess.

Dr. Dean Floyd, a Columbia physician, said a wise relative once stressed to him the importance of diet with the phrase "most men dig their grave with their teeth."

Another big step African-American men can take is learning how to take care of themselves, Bell and Floyd said. Attending events like the forum is a good start.

"You need to get health information from people who know what they're talking about," Bell said. "Don't go to the barber shop for your information about diabetes because if you do, you're in big trouble."