Heart disease is the No. 1 killer for all Americans, it can occur in any age, race and sex. And as frightening as those statistics are the risks of getting heart disease is even higher for African Americans.
The good news is that African Americans can improve their odds of preventing and beating heart disease by understanding the risks and taking simple steps to address them.
“Get checked, and then work with your medical professional on your specific risk factors and the things that you need to do to take care of your personal health,” said Winston Gandy, M.D., a volunteer with the American Heart Association.
High blood pressure, obesity, smoking and diabetes are the most common conditions that increase the risk of heart disease.
High Blood Pressure
The prevalence of high blood pressure in African-Americans is the highest in the world. Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, and it can cause permanent damage to the heart before you even notice any symptoms. That’s why it is often referred to as the “silent killer.”
“You can control your blood pressure,” Dr. Gandy said. “The No. 1 thing you can do is check your blood pressure regularly,” he said. Notify your doctor of changes in case treatment needs to be adjusted. Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, he recommends checking it every two years.
Cigarette smoking is so significant a risk factor that the Surgeon General has called it “the leading preventable cause of disease and deaths in the United States.”
Cigarette smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease by itself. Smoking increases blood pressure, decreases exercise tolerance and increases the tendency for blood to clot. Smoking also increases the risk of recurrent coronary heart disease after bypass surgery.
Cigarette smoking produces a greater relative risk in persons under age 50 than in those over 50.
Women who smoke and use oral contraceptives greatly increase their risk of coronary heart disease and stroke compared with nonsmoking women who use oral contraceptives.
African-Americans are more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanic Whites.
Diabetes is treatable and preventable, but many people don’t recognize early warning signs.
Dr. Gandy said many people associate the disease with older relatives who were diagnosed too late and suffered preventable complications such as blindness, amputations, or renal failure.
For diabetes and other heart disease risks, regular exercise also plays a key role – both in strengthening the cardiovascular system and burning extra calories. Aim for at least 30 minutes of walking a day, Dr. Gandy said.
African Americans are disproportionately affected by obesity. For Blacks age 20 and older, 63% of men and 77% of women are overweight or obese.
If you’re carrying extra weight, Dr. Gandy suggests focusing on the quality of your diet throughout the day, not just during mealtime.
“You can add hundreds of calories to your diet just on snacking,” he said. Choosing wise snacks can be part of a healthy diet.
He also suggests limiting red meat in favor of lean meats such as chicken or fish, and watching portions on carbohydrate-heavy foods, such as pasta and rice.
“Make vegetables the main part of the meal and fill up with those rather than other foods,” he said.
Dr. Gandy cautioned that even things that are healthy can pack in calories.
“If you’re thirsty, drink water, not juice,” Dr. Gandy said.
Failure to exercise (walking or doing other moderate activities for at least 30 minutes, five days a week, or more vigorous workouts at least 20 minutes, three times a week, can contribute to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Your heart can actually weaken overtime if it’s not given a regular workout.
The opposite is true for cardiovascular exercise, it can make your heart healthier. In addition to helping you lose weight, helping to control your cholesterol levels, and getting your diabetes in check.