Heart Disease in Black Women

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Cardiovascular disease kills nearly 50,000 African-American women annually, according to the American Heart Association. About half of African-American women ages 20 and older have heart disease. Women are often so busy taking care of everyone else around them that they may not take the time to consider their own health.

One of the most important things a woman can do for herself is go to the doctor and find out her individual risk for developing heart disease. Many women are surprised by what they learn. But the earlier you know your risk, the sooner you can address it and take important steps toward preventing or managing heart disease.

A Heart Story

At 25-years-old, Maria Burns had her entire life ahead of her— a promising career, a husband and a young son. Maria was excited to be expecting twins. Because she’d had preeclampsia with her first child, she was considered high risk.

At only 25 weeks into the pregnancy with twin girls, Maria suffered a cardiac arrest that sent her into pre-term labor and landed her in the hospital in a coma. An emergency caesarean section had been performed during the arrest.

“That day, my life changed forever,” said Maria of her heart event.

It was the beginning of what would be a long and winding road back to good health. Maria got an implanted defibrillator, which sends electric signals to her heart in order to keep it beating regularly and prevents complications of another cardiac arrest. She could no longer work, and instead had to endure extensive brain and cardiac rehabilitation. “I went from eating whatever I wanted to concentrating on sodium content and a heart-healthy diet. I went from exercising for aesthetics to exercising to keep my heart healthy.”

Know Your Personal Risk

There are many factors that put African-American women at greater risk for developing heart disease. Diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity and a family history of heart disease are all prevalent among African-American women, and are major risk factors for heart disease.

Here are some things you can do to reduce your risk for heart disease:

•Blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes: Go to the doctor to find out if your levels are anything to be concerned about. The doctor can help you develop a plan to manage high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-diabetes or diabetes. The doctor may advise you to adjust your diet and make other lifestyle modifications, or prescribe medication.

•Overweight: Talk with your doctor about your weight, and find out if you need to lose weight to lower your risk of heart disease. It is important to find out your body mass index as well as your waist measurement. If a woman’s waist measures 35 inches or more and she has other risk factors, then her doctor may advise her to lose some weight.

•Smoking: If you smoke and need help quitting, talk with your doctor. You can also visit SmokingStopsHere.com or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW to find free and low-cost community resources available in Baltimore.

Even for the things that are beyond a woman’s control, like family history, it’s better to know so we can monitor and work through any issues that come up.

Know the Warning Signs

In addition to knowing their risk, women should also know the warning signs of heart failure and heart attack. The signs for women are often under-recognized. Women tend to downplay their health issues, go longer without treatment and may be treated less aggressively.

A heart attack can be deceiving in women. More often than not, a heart attack starts slowly in women, with mild pain or discomfort.

Common heart attack symptoms for women include:

•Chest pain or feeling like there’s a big weight on the chest

•Upper body pain or discomfort including in the arm, back, shoulder, neck, jaw or upper stomach area

•Breaking out into a cold sweat

•Feeling lightheaded or dizzy

•Getting nauseous

•Feeling unusually tired

•Having shortness of breath

If a woman has any of these signs, she should call 9-1-1 to get to a hospital immediately.

For women, it’s especially important to get into treatment as early as possible. If something does not feel normal in a profound or unusual way – for example, if you find that you are becoming short of breath more and more often, or you are getting tired more easily than you used to— these could be signs that something may be going on with your heart. Often women think they have the flu or pneumonia and it turns out to be heart failure. Early referral into treatment helps a woman optimize her outcome.

Stacy Fisher, MD, is a cardiologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. To reach her office, call 1-866-408-6885.