By Megan Sayles,
AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
msayles@afro.com

February is American Heart Month. It’s a time when healthcare professionals stress the importance of cardiovascular health, especially to those who are at risk of heart disease. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans in 2018 were 30% more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic Whites. 

“At a basic level, African Americans tend to score high in the things that predispose individuals , in particular, diabetes, hypertension, obesity and high cholesterol, when you take a look at all corners across the country,” said Dr. Clarence Findley, medical director of the Cardiac Catheterization Lab and program director of Structural Heart Disease at University of Maryland Capital Region Health. 

Access to healthcare is also a contributing factor to African Americans’ risk for heart disease. Some may reside in areas where providers are difficult to travel to, and some may be skeptical of the healthcare system. 

Due to these factors, it is important for African Americans to monitor their heart health and do what they can to prevent heart disease. 

One of the biggest risk factors for heart disease is family history, according to Dr. Findley. If anyone in your immediate family has had heart disease, it is essential to inform your healthcare provider. This may lead them to be more aggressive in ensuring that your heart is healthy and lead them to put preventative measures in place, like medications and lifestyle modifications. 

Aside from family history, high blood pressure and diabetes are also risk factors for heart disease, according to Dr. Findley. Knowing what your hemoglobin A1C level is and keeping it as low as possible can help modify the likelihood of developing heart disease. It is also important for those with hypertension to adopt lifestyle and medication recommendations from their doctors. 

According to Dr. Findley, eating foods that are high in saturated fats and trans fats can result in high cholesterol, another risk factor for heart disease. In addition, the use of tobacco, sedentary lifestyle and obesity can predispose individuals to heart disease. 

Dr. Findley recommended two diets that have been proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events, a wholefood plant-based diet and the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. He also recommended that individuals exercise five days a week for 30 minutes a day, keeping their heart rate up for the entire duration of the workout. 

The symptoms of heart disease can be different in men and women. Men often have discomfort in the middle or to the left of their chest, and then the pain travels to their left arm. However, it’s also possible for the pain to travel to the right arm. 

Women may experience pain in the neck or jaw. They may also complain of indigestion, nausea and vomiting, particularly after eating. 

Other signs of heart disease include shortness of breath and heavy sweating, especially if these symptoms worsen with exertion and improve with rest. 

“All of these things really point to, if African Americans do get (heart disease), they get it worse than everybody else and sometimes it can have fatal outcomes,” said Dr. Findley. “Trying to do your best to ensure that you don’t even go down that route I think is what we need to, as a community, try and pay attention to.” 

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