Plagued by chronic illnesses, elderly blacks dying at alarming rate

black aging covid
Mardell Reed has high blood pressure, anemia, arthritis and thyroid and kidney disease. The 80-year-old says she rarely goes outside because of COVID-19. “I’m just afraid of being around people,” she says. Credit: Heidi De Marco/KHN

They are perishing quietly, out of sight, in homes and apartment buildings, senior housing complexes, nursing homes and hospitals, disproportionately poorfrail and ill, after enduring a lifetime of racism and its attendant adverse health effects.

Yet, older Black Americans have received little attention as protesters proclaim that Black Lives Matter and experts churn out studies about the coronavirus.

A KHN analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscores the extent of their vulnerability. It found that African Americans ages 65 to 74 died of COVID-19 five times as often as whites. In the 75-to-84 group, the death rate for Blacks was 3½ times greater.

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Social and economic disadvantage, reinforced by racism, plays a significant part in unequal outcomes. Throughout their lives, Blacks have poorer access to health care and receive services of lower quality than does the general population. Starting in middle age, the toll becomes evident: more chronic medical conditions, which worsen over time, and earlier deaths.

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Several conditions — diabetes, chronic kidney disease, obesity, heart failure and pulmonary hypertension, among others — put older Blacks at heightened risk of becoming seriously ill and dying from COVID-19.

Yet many vulnerable Black seniors are deeply distrustful of government and health care institutions, complicating efforts to mitigate the pandemic’s impact.

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