Theodore Britton, left, recently celebrated his 91st birthday and still enjoys good health. Britton, according to Dr. Herman Taylor, director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine, is a prime examine of the resiliency African-Americans enjoy. GRACIEBONDSTAPLES/gstaples@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

African-Americans can live longer despite disadvantages, adversity

Back in 2015, Ambassador Theodore Britton was attending a meeting at Hampton University on minority men’s health when in walked Dr. Herman Taylor.

Taylor, a cardiologist who made a name for himself leading the largest epidemiological investigation ever undertaken to discover the links between cardiovascular disease and race, had come to talk about his work with the Jackson Heart Study.

Britton had been expecting someone considerably older, and Taylor didn’t know what to expect but the men struck an instant friendship.

“I was fascinated by his vigor and love of life,” Taylor said of Britton.

He was also curious. Britton, who in 1944 helped break the color barrier to the U.S. Marine Corp, the last branch of the military to admit African-Americans, was fast approaching 90. How had he managed to maintain a relatively healthy and long life in the face of so many odds?

Experts have known for a long time, for instance, that while death from cardiovascular disease has been decreasing since 1963 for the nation as a whole, mortality rates in the black community have been trending upward. Plus, chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity all increase the risk for heart disease and affect African-Americans disproportionately.

To get to the why, Taylor said he and his team were following 5,302 African-Americans.

“We not only looked at blood pressure and cholesterol, we used cutting edge technology to look at their physiological profile, we studied diet, cultural issues, stress related discrimination, conditions of neighborhoods, issues related to income and wealth, both of which impact psychological well-being, and more” Taylor said. “We studied all of those things that people in many fields of study thought might affect a person’s outlook and behavior but could also impact health directly.”

That work is still going on at the University of Mississippi, Jackson State and Tougaloo College.

When he left Ole Miss in 2014 to become director of the cardiovascular research institute at the Morehouse School of Medicine, Taylor’s research interests shifted.

Instead of trying to figure out why African-Americans were so sick, he wanted to know more about why despitedisadvantages, despite challenges and despite adversity, there are people like Britton who are living long healthy lives.

Morehouse School of Medicine studying resilience in African-Americans.
Video: www.accessatlanta.com

“While it’s true too many suffer from health problems, there are many who are examples of very good health,” Taylor said. “It’s true for instance that up to 50 percent of black adults have high blood pressure; that means that 50 percent don’t, despite all of the challenges, racial and economic and access issues. Yes it’s true that 15 percent of African-Americans have cardiovascular disease, 85 percent don’t and we often lose those facts in the discussion.”

In addition, Taylor said, data from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that blacks who live into their late 70s and 80s actually go on to live at least as long as their white counterparts.

That’s an important point to make for several reasons.

One, Taylor said, we can learn from these people. What type of community or social environment is most conducive to that resilience? What’s behind their success? What’s behind poor people who live to be 100 years old?

“It’s very likely we’re going to find there is a combination of things that contribute to resilience,” Taylor said. “If we understand it in African-Americans the lessons will transcend race.”

Thanks to funding from the American Heart Association, Taylor launched a resiliency study with colleagues from Morehouse and Emory schools of medicine last year in hopes of answering those questions.

Britton, who hardly ever sits still and is constantly reading, is Taylor’s exhibit A of what could be. what we all want to be. The first study involves people between 34 and 65; other Cardiovascular Research Institute studies are being planned that will eventually include seniors like Britton as well.

For more information, call the Cardiovascular Research Institute at 404-7522-1545.

Britton, who takes medication for cholesterol, attributes his longevity to a lot of things, including regularly reading medical books and keeping really busy.

“If you do nothing, you become nothing,” he said. “Practice today to live tomorrow.”

And please, by all means, laugh.

“We’re all suffering from something,” Britton said. “Life is a disease that eventually leads to death. Make sure you keep breathing. If you have to go to sleep, always snore.”

Well, I’m told I do all those things.

Related: Nurse: Don’t ignore signs of heart disease

Related: Heart association kicks off annual Go Red Heart

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