Compared with non-Hispanic white active-duty members in the USAF, non-Hispanic blacks are consistently and significantly more likely to be diagnosed with hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes, or asthma. Disparities were also noted for other racial/ethnic minorities, although these were less consistent.
The overall prevalence of hypertension in this population (5.3%) is consistent with a published prevalence of 6.7% for hypertension among 20- to 39-year-olds from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) IV (5
). The NHANES IV workforce study, which was limited to employed participants in NHANES IV, found that Mexican Americans demonstrated the lowest prevalence of hypertension at 6.2%, and non-Hispanic blacks had the highest prevalence at 12.4% (6
). These results are consistent with our findings that Hispanics had the lowest overall prevalence of hypertension and non-Hispanic blacks the highest. However, the fact that the prevalence of hypertension for non-Hispanic blacks was more than double that of non-Hispanic whites was a more pronounced difference and was similar to the prevalence observed among older adults (aged 65-84) in NHANES III (17
The overall prevalence of dyslipidemia in this sample was 4.6%, which was much lower than the overall prevalence of 16.4% among employed NHANES IV participants aged 20 to 39 (6
). This difference could be due to different operationalized definitions of dyslipidemia; the NHANES IV workforce study determined dyslipidemia on the basis of elevated low-density lipoprotein cholesterol results or a self-report of taking medication to lower cholesterol, rather than coded data from medical appointments. Another potential reason for the difference could be related to the entrance standards for the USAF, which exclude many risk factors that can influence the development of dyslipidemia.
The prevalence of dyslipidemia for non-Hispanic whites in our study was 4.46%, the lowest of all racial/ethnic groups. This differed from the results of the NHANES IV workforce study, which found the highest rates for non-Hispanic whites, at 18.0% (6
). However, in a systematic review of cardiovascular risk factors, no minority racial/ethnic group has consistently demonstrated a higher prevalence of high cholesterol than whites (7
). The NHANES IV workforce study found a 2.4% prevalence of diabetes (6
). The prevalence of diabetes for active-duty USAF members was much lower, at 0.3%. This difference could be due to differing definitions of diabetes; the NHANES IV workforce study determined diabetes based on fasting blood glucose levels (6
). However, a previous study found that the incidence of diabetes in the military is consistent with the incidence in a nonmilitary population (2
), so the lower prevalence is likely due to pre-enlistment screening that excludes potential applicants who have already developed diabetes or have risk factors that can lead to diabetes, including an elevated body mass index. Additionally, uncontrolled diabetes is grounds for medical discharge from the USAF; some members with diabetes may have been unaccounted for by our study for this reason.
Although we found that the overall prevalence of diabetes was lower for all race/ethnicity groups than what was reported for the US population (6
), the disparity for non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics in our population is similar to what has been reported in prior studies of military (2
) and nonmilitary (7
) populations. However, in this sample, American Indian/Alaska Native members demonstrated a lower prevalence of diabetes compared with non-Hispanic whites. This finding is not consistent with previously published studies outside of the military (7
). Pre-enlistment screening may exclude American Indian/Alaska Native members who are at higher risk for developing diabetes or these members may be more likely to develop uncontrolled diabetes and to be medically discharged; however, possible causes were beyond the scope of this study.
Prevalence of asthma in our study population was 0.9%, much lower than the overall prevalence from the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System of 7.7% for adults (10
). This difference in overall prevalence is likely because asthma diagnosed before age 12 is a disqualification for entry into the military (11
Despite the higher prevalence of the chronic diseases for racial or ethnic minorities compared with non-Hispanic whites, there is no evidence that that these members are less likely to participate in preventive care activities. In fact, a previous analysis from this population indicated that among active-duty members younger than 30 (more than half the sample), non-Hispanic blacks were significantly more likely to have a current preventive health assessment compared with non-Hispanic whites (P
< .05) (18
Outside of the military, racial/ethnic health disparities are attributed to interconnected factors, including racism (19
), social and economic factors (20
), and access to health care (21
). Health literacy, another factor in health disparities, is also associated with poor outcomes but not necessarily with the overall use of health care (22
The reasons for persistent racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of chronic diseases among a prescreened USAF population with equitable health care and living conditions are complex. However, because disparities have been identified outside of the military setting (3
), pre-enlistment screening and subsequent health care and community resources likely cannot completely overcome at least 18 years of prior health neglect or culturally ingrained health habits and beliefs. In fact, several recent studies have linked childhood factors to long-term health outcomes; low socioeconomic status and experiencing a high number of adversities during childhood are associated with poor physical capabilities (23
) and a high risk of developing diabetes (24
Targeted interventions are effective at addressing disparities in the prevalence of chronic diseases (25
). Just as important, however, is the need to acknowledge the effect of disparities on the overall health of men and women who enlist in the USAF and other military services. A concerted effort to understand and design culturally sensitive prevention efforts is the first step to address these disparities. Tracking existing population health metrics by race/ethnicity may also help to identify problems (and successes) and ensure that health disparities are adequately addressed.
Relying on existing clinical and administrative data has several inherent disadvantages, primarily the inability to completely account for the unique circumstances and risk factors of each person. A factor that should be considered is the overall rate of medical discharges from the military for these chronic diseases; however, these data were not available for analysis or comparison. Also, differences in personal health care–seeking behaviors may directly influence the findings because the diagnosis of these chronic diseases in this study relies on existing data from individual encounters. Some members may have met diagnostic criteria for 1 of the 4 chronic diseases included in this study but avoided screening activities.
We were, however, able to use data collected on every active-duty member in the USAF who met eligibility criteria, and to compare among all race/ethnicity, sex, and rank categories. Therefore, we were not bound by selection bias or a limited sample size. Our findings provide a reference point for future research examining health outcomes of active-duty military members by race/ethnicity.
The racial and ethnic disparities in the prevalence of the 4 chronic diseases we studied suggest the need to ensure effective preventive health care practices and community outreach efforts for racial/ethnic minorities, particularly non-Hispanic blacks.