African Americans & Health: Focus on Heart Disease (Part 1 in a Series)

by Valeriani R. Bead, MD, Cardiologist, MedStar Health Cardiology Associates
February 18, 2020

When an African American man or woman visits my cardiology office, I don’t just see another patient in my schedule. I see someone who may need my extra attention. That’s because African Americans have a uniquely high risk for heart disease, and there are several steps we can take to help prevent it or at least manage it if we start early.

Why Do African Americans Have Higher Risks for Heart Disease?

Heart disease is the #1 killer of Americans, but it hits African Americans particularly hard and often much earlier in life than the general population.

Facts show that nearly one-half of African American adult men and women have some form of cardiovascular disease. That compares to one-third of white American adults. African Americans in general die earlier than other ethnic groups in this country, largely because of heart disease. Even children don’t escape the risks. Consider this: 14% of African American kids already have high blood pressure—a major risk factor for heart disease. That’s about 40% more black children with hypertension than white children.

What’s going on here?

For one thing, African Americans are more likely to develop health issues that often lead to heart disease. That includes high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. When these conditions aren’t addressed early enough or managed well, that increases the risk for heart disease even further. Unfortunately, and for various reasons, that scenario happens all too often within our African American community.

Other factors are also to blame for the excessive heart disease burden in African Americans. Genes may play some role. Unique stresses in our environment may be another. But the most common factor is probably lifestyle. The good news is that lifestyle includes many daily habits and choices that you can change to help protect your heart health and help ensure you live a longer life without debilitating disease.

Heart disease hits African Americans harder than the general population. Dr. Valeriani Bead explains why, and how to decrease your risk. https://bit.ly/2SpL6pq via @MedStarWHC

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5 Ways to Help Yourself and Your Children Live Heart Healthier

You don’t need to start with anything dramatic to lower your risk for cardiovascular disease. Some simple steps and just being more mindful about certain habits can have a powerful payoff in terms of protecting your heart and vessels. Here’s what I recommend:

1. Don’t wait until you’re sick to make a doctor’s appointment.

When I ask people what they think a doctor’s job is, they almost always say “taking care of sick people.” That’s only part of it! Start thinking of your doctor as your teacher. That’s our real job. If you haven’t had a check-up lately, find a primary doctor you like and make an appointment. We’re here to help you understand your personal risks for certain health issues and to find sensible ways to manage them. Most doctors aren’t just standing by with a prescription pad. We can recommend sensible ways to live healthier and to avoid or minimize problems, before you need a lot of medicines. So make an appointment, and let’s talk about you!

 2. Know your numbers.

An important reason for getting routine check-ups—even when you’re feeling fine—is to get your numbers checked. These simple body measurements can tell you a lot about your risk factors for heart disease, so you can act early if anything starts to skew into “unhealthy” territory. Don’t settle for just knowing your numbers. Ask your doctor to explain yours and to recommend ways to keep them within a healthy range. Here are the numbers your doctor will routinely check:

  • Blood pressure — Many African Americans go for years without knowing they have high blood pressure. We call it a “silent” killer because you generally can’t “feel” it, even though it may be damaging your heart and vessels. Keeping your blood pressure in a healthy range—with healthy lifestyle steps and daily medicine if you need it—can significantly lower your risk for heart disease, heart failure, and stroke.
  • Body mass index, or BMI, is a number that shows if you’re at a healthy weight for your body type and height. Many adults commonly consider their weight “healthy” when in fact it’s too heavy. Your doctor can help you understand what’s healthy for you.
  • Cholesterol and triglyceride level — Determining these numbers involves a quick blood test to measure the levels of these fatty substances that raise your risk for heart disease. If your numbers are high, your doctor can suggest lifestyle changes and/or medicines that can move yours back into a healthy range that helps protect you from heart attacks, heart disease, and stroke.
  • Blood glucose level — This number, measured with a simple blood test, can determine whether you have, or you’re at risk for, diabetes—another serious risk factor for heart disease. If you find out early enough that your blood glucose number is too high, then you and your doctor can make an action plan to help prevent diabetes. That can help lower your risk for heart disease and spare you the challenges of managing this lifelong condition.

3. Limit screen time.

Let’s face it. Smartphones and computers play a big role in our everyday life today, and Americans are sitting more than ever because of them. Limiting your screen time, then, may just help to lower your risk for heart disease. Start by paying attention to how much time you and your children are actually spending in front of screens—playing video games, watching TV, surfing the Internet. Then, set sensible limits on those hours of the day when screen time is an option, not a work or other requirement. The American Heart Association recommends limiting screen time for kids ages 5 and up to 2 hours per day max. That might be a good rule of thumb for adults’ leisure time as well.

4. Cut out snacks.

Paying attention to choosing more healthy foods—including lots of fruit and vegetables—is a must for good heart health. But cutting out snacks is one of the top diet tips, I recommend. Say no to strictly snack-type foods that come in bags and boxes—like chips and cookies. These tend to be extremely high in salt, sugar, fat, and calories that can increase a number of risks for heart disease. Plan ahead for yourself and your kids by keeping healthy alternatives on hand for a quick bite when it’s really needed. Think about fruit, whole-grain crackers and cheese, yogurt, and other “real” foods. The same goes for sweetened beverages sipped throughout the day. Skip them and stick to a water bottle instead.

5. Move around more.

Getting more exercise into your life doesn’t have to involve a gym or weights. Start where you are. Walking is the easiest. If you can only walk from your living room to your kitchen, do it a few times every day, and then build up. If you can walk one flight of stairs or one lap around the block, start there and go further as it gets easier. Make movement fun—like taking kids to the playground or strolling with a friend. The key is to be consistent about it, so put active time in your calendar if it helps. Aim for at least 20 to 30 minutes of moving-around activity most days of the week to start. If you can push yourself until you feel a little breathless but can still talk, you’ll reap even more heart-healthy benefits.

Lower your risk.

Talk with one of our specialists.

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Category: Healthy Living     Tags: Heart and vascular