National Heart Month might be over… but the beat goes on for making healthy lifestyle choices


— February was National Heart Month, a month-long observance, which seeks to raise awareness about heart health.

Even though National Heart Month has ended, startling statistics— particularly in the African-American community, convey the need to continue to raise awareness about practicing heart-healthy behavior to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three deaths in the United States is due to cardiovascular disease. The CDC also points out that nearly half of all African American adults have some form of cardiovascular disease that includes heart disease and stroke.

African Americans are at higher risk. The CDC notes that about two out of every five African American adults have high blood pressure, and less than half of them have it under control.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the prevalence of high blood pressure (hypertension) in African-Americans is the highest in the world. Hypertension increases the risk of heart disease and stroke and can cause permanent damage to the heart before symptoms are noticed. This is why heart disease is known to be a silent killer.

“The risk factors for heart disease include hypertension, diabetes, and obesity, all which are over represented in the African American community,” said Dr. Michelle Zikusoka, a cardiologist with the MedStar Medical Group, who practices primarily out of Good Samaritan Hospital. “Hypertension is one of the greatest challenges in the African American community. It has no symptoms. It results in slow changes over time that create stroke and heart failure events.

“Research has shown that it’s tried and true that you have to know your risk factors to decrease a cardiac event. Sometimes, the first manifestation of heart disease is death. It speaks to the importance of prevention and knowing your blood pressure numbers.”

Dr. Zikusoka, is a graduate of the Yale University School of Medicine, and completed her residency and Fellowship Programs at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Last year, the AHA released a report, which noted that racially and ethnically diverse women with Acute Myocardial Infarction (AMI) have distinct experiences in terms of presentation, risk factor burden, evidence-based care, and long-term outcomes. AMI is the medical name for a heart attack. A heart attack is a life-threatening condition that occurs when blood flow to the heart is abruptly cut off, causing tissue damage.

According to the AHA report, the prevalence of AMI is higher in black women than in all other racial and ethnic groups of women; black women also have a higher incidence of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD) as the first manifestation of Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) than white women, and their survival rate after out-of-hospital arrest is about one third that of whites.

Dr. Zikusoka pointed out that culturally, African-Americans live on a diet high in fat and sugar— precursors to a plethora of health issues. Smoking is another significant risk factor, she said.

Despite the disparaging statistics and report, Dr. Zikusoka pointed out that the good news is that African-Americans can improve their odds in preventing heart disease by unserstanding its risk factors and taking simple steps to address them.

“Too few of us are controlling our blood pressure,” said Dr. Zikusoka. “Working on it includes dietary and lifestyle choices. In general, we as society need a mentality shift. People shouldn’t see their primary care provider only when they are feeling sick, but they need to see them before they become ill for preventative care and training. People need to see their doctor in sickness and in health to know what to do ahead of time. Primary prevention is having risk factors diagnosed, and working aggressively with primary care providers to prevent them.

“The primary care provider can begin the management process and provide a game plan. For example, they can make referrals such as seeing a cardiologist. People also have to take inventory of what they are doing. Our daily lives often make us pick up what’s fast and convenient but this often isn’t what’s good for us. I also recommend exercising, and having a partner to help you along during the journey. We all have to work together.”

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