Heart Disease Plays on the Heartstrings of African Americans

2/8/2022 | Bernadette R. Anderson, MD, MPH

Each year in February, you’ll see lots of people donning red, but it’s not just for Valentine’s Day. It’s to bring awareness to a startling statistic… One person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from heart disease.

It’s even more alarming that heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States - and is largely a preventable condition!


What is heart disease?

Heart disease is any condition that disrupts the rhythm, pace, or the heart’s ability to deliver nutrients and oxygen to the body - whatever causes your heart to sing the blues. Here’s a clever way to remember a few ailments that upset the heart:

H= heart valve defect such as mitral valve prolapse and aortic stenosis

E= excess fat, cholesterol and calcium blocking arteries (higher risk of a heart attack or stroke)

A= abnormal heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation, bradycardia [slow beat], tachycardia (fast beat])

R= reduced blood flow to the extremities leading to pain, coldness, and numbness in the limbs

T= trouble pumping enough blood to the body (AKA heart failure)

The good news is lifestyle medicine along with guidance from a medical professional can help you to live life fully despite a sick heart – more about that further down in this article.


Heart disease does not differentiate

It’s a life-threatening health issue for everyone. Neither gender, race, or ethnicity grants immunity from heart disease. Recent studies and scientific polls, however, show that African Americans in particular are in harm’s way.

The facts cited by the Center of Disease Control (CDC) paint the whole picture when it comes to African Americans and heart disease – and it isn’t pretty.

  • Nearly 48% of the women and 44% of the men have some form of heart disease.
  • Those ages 18-49 are two times as likely to die from heart disease than white Americans.
  • Their death rate for heart disease is 20% higher compared to rates in white Americans.
  • Their rate of heart disease is higher in the growing middle and upper-class community than in white Americans with comparable socioeconomic status.

African Americans carry an unfair burden of heart disease and too often pay with their lives.


What risk factors are pulling on your heartstrings?

Dr. Michelle Albert, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco alleges that, “only about 20 percent of cardiovascular risk is genetics. The other 80 percent is either behavioral or environmental.” That being the case, the three weighing heavily on the hearts of African Americans - diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity - are certainly exacerbated by social and environmental risk factors. But, your heart shouldn’t be at the mercy of your circumstances.


Environmental risk factors

Environmental risk factors that do not spare the heart, especially of African Americans:

  • Inability to afford doctor visit
  • Living in areas that lack health centers
  • Lack of access to healthy food choices
  • Unable to afford medications


Behavioral risk factors

Thankfully, there are behavioral risk factors that you can choose to change including:

Smoking. It’s never too late to quit smoking. After five years, your risk of heart disease is nearly the same as someone who never smoked a cigarette.

Little or no physical activity. The couch may look tempting, but being active for at least 30 minutes, 5 days a week is what your heart truly desires.

Being overweight or obese. One of the ways to a healthy heart is through the stomach. A diet rich in - fruits, vegetables (not fried or cook with animal fat), lean protein, whole grains, and plant-based oils - keeps the weight down and lets the beat go on.

Stress. Don’t take everything to heart. Worrying puts a real strain on the heart. Schedule time regularly to relax, meditate, practice yoga, or for whatever takes the edge off of life for you.

Overindulging on the spirits. If you don’t drink, do not start. There are plenty of other heart-healthy things besides a glass of red wine. However, if you do consume alcohol, women should cap it off at one drink in a day and men should limit it to two.

Poor sleep. Skimming on the Zs puts the heart in a slump. 7-9 hours of rest nightly is the best sleep-hygiene to keep your heart content.

Uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. This trilogy puts extra work on the heart. The closer they are to normal (via lifestyle and, if necessary, medication), the more efficiently the heart can function.


On a high note…

Dr. Dean Ornish once stated, “heart disease could be as rare as malaria today, if we simply put into action what we already know.”

I agree with that but feel a priority must be placed on addressing the disparities of heart disease.

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