The #blacklivesmatter movement sweeping the world is a positive force for change, which resonates deeply within the medical profession too.
Although the achievements of black women like Mary Seacole, the Crimean War nurse whose 3-metre high statue stands in front of St Thomas’s Hospital in London, and Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, who spent much of her working life as a nurse in the NHS and also helped establish the Sickle Cell Society, have been recognised, there is more work to be done.
Ethnicity has an impact on people’s health in ways that are not always obvious. By working together, people from all ethnic backgrounds can learn how genetic differences can affect our health from conception into old age. The medical profession wants to understand these differences so we can adapt and offer alternative treatments during a consultation.
The perimenopause seems to occur earlier, maybe by only a couple of years, in black women and Latina women, but this does not necessarily mean that it will be over sooner. Menopause can last longer and, instead of decreasing with age, some of the symptoms actually seem to increase, including the vasomotor symptoms, such as hot flushes and night sweats.
It seems that stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and other health conditions may be more common in general among black women than white women. Stress can exacerbate all of the above conditions. Women of colour are still navigating their professional and personal lives within a race conscious society, which can cause constant, low level stress. The physical impact of stress on the body is accumulative, which means by the time a woman reaches her 40s the damage may have already been done with potential damage to her cardiovascular health, digestive issues and repeated inflammation anywhere in the body. This can lead to greater risk for diseases and lowered resilience.
Cortisol is the stress hormone and if it is released consistently, albeit at a low level, it can also cause weight gain, high blood pressure, mood swings and depression. Other hormones will also be affected by continuous stress, so estrogen related symptoms (hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, urine leakage) seem to be more common among black women than other ethnic groups. One client described how she just felt so clumsy all the time and as if she had lost all sense of coordination. On the other hand, she experienced far fewer somatic symptoms, such as headaches, sleep issues, or stiffness and soreness in her joints.
#blacklivesmatter has brought to the fore many issues that our society needs to address and within the context of women’s health positive dialogue is already taking place between medical professionals and patients. The United Kingdom is leading the way by offering individuals greater choice of treatment, tailored to their physiological and psychological profile.