The media would have you believe the leading cause of death among African Americans is homicide. Undoubtedly, homicide is a public health issue within the African American community. However, comparatively speaking, it ranks near the bottom of the 10 leading causes of death among African Americans.

In 2014, the leading cause of death among African Americans was heart disease (23.7%) followed by: cancer (22.4%), stroke (5.6%), unintentional injuries (4.6%), diabetes (4.4%), chronic lower respiratory disease (CLRD) (3.2%), kidney disease (2.8%), homicide (2.5%), Septicemia (2.1%), and Alzheimer’s disease (2.1%) (Statista, 2017).


As a pastor and public health leader, I am an advocate of both local churches and public health professionals working together to help reduce the prevalence of chronic diseases within our communities. However, to overcome the barrier of mistrust that exists between African Americans and the health system, public health leaders must first recognize the many atrocities African Americans have historically faced at the hands of physicians and medical scientists. These atrocities have taken place during slavery, the antebellum South, the reconstruction period, Jim Crow segregation etc.

Consider the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Male Negro where sharecroppers went untreated for 40 years. This remains staunchly embedded in the minds of many African Americans. Mistrust lingers with today’s issues of medical racism and bias experienced among both African American patients and clinicians within the US healthcare system.


As African Americans, we must also recognize many of the major issues that we face in our community are self-inflicted. For example, the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity is most prevalent among African American women, with four in five being overweight or obese (Office of Minority Health, 2017). With heart disease being the leading cause of death within our community, it’s imperative we do a better job of understanding the cultural barriers and environmental issues (e.g. food deserts) that are conducive to making obesity so prevalent among our girls and women.

This also applies to boys and men. Many African American men do not like going to the doctor. We need to change this mindset. The American Cancer Society (ACS) anticipated 189,910 new cancer cases among African Americans. The most prevalent cancer among men will be prostate cancer, rising 31% (2017). It’s imperative that we ensure men are meeting with their primary care provider and are being screened for cancer to help reduce the number two killer within our community.

The Body of Christ

The Church can play a vital role in the work to reduce the prevalence of chronic disease within our community. The African American church has historically been a place where African Americans have turned to, not only as it relates to spiritual guidance but also issues of social justice. For those of us who work in public health, we realize that public health is a social justice issue. I will save my argument that healthcare is a right for another article. However, the local church can take a lead by working to bridge the gap of mistrust that exists between African Americans and public health through collaboration.

Many African American churches have the physical resources to hold classes and forums to help address many of the public health issues discussed in this article. Developing community health promotion and education programs that are church-based would be a good place to start in helping to building new trust. Training pastors as public health advocates and laity as community health workers would make a dent in reducing the leading causes of death among our people.


Reference List

American Cancer Society (ACS). (2017). Cancer facts & figures for African Americans. Retrieved November 24, 2017 from

Office of Minority Health (OMH). (2017). Obesity and African Americans. Retrieved November 24, 2017 from

Statista. (2017). Distribution of the 10 leading causes of death among African Americans in the United States in 2014. Retrieved November 24, 2017 from