Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States and Black women are disproportionally affected. Understanding the risks factors and prevention strategies can save many lives.
“Many African American women aren’t even aware that they are at risk, which is why education is so important,” says Poulina Uddin, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic. “There is a lot you can do to protect your heart.”
Healthy living, regular checkups, and medications (if appropriate), can help reduce the risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death for men, women and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.
“Early intervention is possible, for example, when you know there is heart disease in your family history and can share that information with your physician,” Dr. Uddin adds.
Heart disease and cardiovascular disease are often used interchangeably. Both refer to a range of conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels.
Black women are at greater risk for heart disease than women in other racial groups.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA):
- Stroke and heart disease are the leading causes for Black women; cardiovascular diseases account for more than 50,000 deaths annually.
- Approximately 60% of Black women ages 20 and older have a cardiovascular disease.
- Approximately 60% of Black women have high blood pressure; only two in 10 have their blood pressure under control.
- Only 40% of Black women are aware that chest pain can be a sign of a heart attack.
- Only one in three Black women recognize that pain spreading to the shoulder, neck or arms is a potential heart attack sign.
- Heart disease accounts for over one-third of maternal deaths. Black women have some of the highest maternal mortality rates.
Many risk factors for heart disease and stroke are prevalent among African American women, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- Being overweight
- Family history of heart disease
“A history of heart disease in your family doesn’t mean you will have heart problems, but it does mean you are at greater risk than others and need to change any behavior that raises your risk,” Dr. Uddin says.
If you are at risk for heart disease, consider making these heart-healthy choices:
- Avoid smoking. Quitting significantly lowers the risk of heart disease.
- Eat healthy. A balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables plays a crucial role in heart health.
- Achieve and maintain a healthy weight to reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Keep a healthy blood pressure. Regular monitoring and management of blood pressure are essential to prevent heart attacks.
Beyond individual risk factors, social determinants of health play a role in heart disease risk for African Americans. Socioeconomic status, access to health care and environmental influences are factors that significantly impact their risk levels and ability to manage underlying conditions or make lifestyle and dietary changes.
Women often present with different symptoms of heart disease compared to men.
While chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack for males and females, women are more likely to experience other common symptoms, such as shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea and back or jaw pain. These other common symptoms may not immediately raise suspicion of a heart problem, which can affect a correct diagnosis.
Dr. Uddin, a member of the heart team at the Scripps Women’s Heart Center, emphasizes the importance of physicians with expertise in women’s heart health.
“By partnering with a physician who understands the unique needs of women’s hearts and individual risk factors, women can get more appropriate heart care and disease prevention strategies,” she says.
Scripps Women’s Heart Center provides heart care for women, by women. Our female cardiologists are experts in cardiology and integrative medicine, and specialize in female heart disease. The center is dedicated to empowering women to take care of their hearts through education, lifestyle and, when needed, expert medical care.