To Your Health: Heart Health in African American Women

February is American Heart Month. Each year in the U.S., 1 in 4 deaths are caused by heart disease, making it the leading cause of death for American men and women. About 610,000 Americans have a first stroke every year. Another 525,000 have a first heart attack. Additionally, heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 killer in women, and stroke disproportionately affects African-Americans. Importantly, African-American women are less likely than Caucasian women to be aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death. So, while many adult women may feel like they are aware of the dangers of heart disease, they may not fully understand the risk factors and preventative measures, especially if they are of African American descent.

Risk factors for stroke and heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and being overweight or obese. African-American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese compared to other groups in the U.S. (about 82% of African-American women are overweight or obese). This is important to realize for the following reasons:

  • People who are overweight are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, high levels of blood fats, diabetes, and LDL cholesterol — all risk factors for heart disease and stroke.
  • In 2015, African-Americans were 20% less likely to engage in active physical activity as non-Hispanic whites.
  • Deaths rates from heart disease and stroke are higher for African-Americans as compared to whites.

Additional risk factors for heart disease and stroke include diabetes, physical inactivity, and a family history of heart disease, all of which are prevalent among African-Americans. This results in twice the risk of stroke for African-American women when compared to Caucasian females, and death rates at earlier ages.

Here are a few more unsettling stats from the American Heart Association:

  • Cardiovascular diseases kill nearly 50,000 African-American women annually.
  • Of African-American women ages 20 and older, 49 percent have heart diseases.
  • Only 1 in 5 African-American women believes she is personally at risk.
  • Only 52 percent of African-American women are aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
  • Only 36 percent of African-American women know that heart disease is their greatest health risk.
  • More than 40 percent of non-Hispanic blacks have high blood pressure, which is more severe in blacks than whites and develops earlier in life.

Despite genetic differences that make some African-Americans more sensitive to salt and the resultant high blood pressure, the good news is that the risks can be lowered through lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medications.  More fruits, vegetables, and exercise are all helpful in decreasing risk. Exact types and amounts of exercise are still being studied.   New risk equations exist that can predict more accurately the true risk for heart disease and stroke in African-Americans. These prediction models were based primarily on past research done with Caucasians, but newer models include African-Americans and are more precise. To calculate 10-year risk, the updated equation uses race, gender, age, total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, use of blood pressure medication, diabetes status and smoking status. Ask your health care provider about your risk based on this new prediction model.

And, as a reminder, the signs of stroke include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

For Heart Health month, get informed, get medical advice and lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. It is a “heartwarming” thing to do! Resources:


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