Heart disease kills nearly 50,000 Black women annually, yet only 1 in 5 Black women believes she is personally at risk. The statistics on diabetes are also startling: 1 in 4 Black women 55 years and older have diabetes.
The harsh reality is that biological, socioeconomic, and psychosocial risk factors account for much of this disparity. In fact, an American Heart Association study showed an association between experiencing discrimination over a lifetime and developing high blood pressure, a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Additionally, high blood pressure and heart disease place many Black Americans at a higher risk of death or serious illness from COVID-19.
While there are many factors outside of your control, there is reason to be hopeful when it comes to protecting your heart. Most heart attacks and strokes are preventable. For Heart Month this February, I urge you to take these steps toward a healthier heart.
Watch for signs and symptoms
While we usually think of chest tightness, shortness of breath, left arm pain, and jaw or neck pain as the symptoms of a heart attack, some women having a heart attack will not have these typical symptoms. Instead, women may experience pain in their abdomen or upper back, or symptoms like indigestion, fainting, nausea or cold sweats. Listen to your body and seek medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms.
Eat a heart-healthy diet
We all know that what we eat affects our health, particularly our heart health. Consistently eating nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean poultry and fish will go a long way toward protecting your heart. Limit foods high in saturated fats, sodium, and sugar, like processed snacks, fast food, soda and sports drinks. Being aware and keeping track of what you eat daily is a great first step toward modifying your diet. If you’re thinking about trying to lose weight, talk to your doctor about establishing a sensible plan that will work for you.
Regular aerobic activity is vital to your cardiovascular health. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week — or about 30 minutes, five days per week. Not sure where to start? Try taking a brisk walk with a friend, dancing around your living room, or even cleaning your home to get your heart pumping and make a significant difference in reducing your risk of heart disease. Think about how much sitting you do throughout the day and try to remind yourself to take a movement break and do what you can to get a little bit of exercise. Even small chunks, broken up throughout the day, will have an impact.
Visit your physician regularly and know your numbers
Ask your primary care doctor to help you track your blood pressure, sugar levels, and cholesterol. These are some of the best indicators to determine whether you may be at risk for a heart attack or stroke. If you have been prescribed medication to control these factors, make sure that you are taking it regularly. Even if you’re healthy now, let your doctor know if you have a family history of heart disease. Your doctor is your partner in preventing and managing heart disease.
Don’t delay routine care during the pandemic. If you don’t feel comfortable visiting the doctor’s office, consider a virtual appointment.
If you do smoke, consider reaching out to health care provider to help you quit. Smoking is a major risk factor for both heart attack and stroke. There are some very useful programs, tools, and medications that can help you quit smoking. Talk to a medical professional about what resources might be available to help you get started on the cessation journey. Even if you have been a smoker for many years, it’s never too late to start reversing the damage and getting healthy.
With the right support network, we can all lead healthier lives and reduce our risk of heart attack and stroke. Making a few small changes in what we eat or how much we move can have a dramatic impact on our overall health. Let’s use what we know to strengthen ourselves and our communities so that we can enjoy long, happy, healthy lives with our loved ones.
The American Heart Association wants to empower women to protect their heart health by knowing your heart disease risk factors and making healthy lifestyle choices. To get involved in Go Red for Women and learn more about women’s heart health, visit DCGoRed.Heart.Org.
Tamrat is a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente and subject matter expert for the American Heart Association.