Older African American woman exercising and taking her pulse.

How Heart Disease Disproportionately Affects Different Races

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States, claiming more than 800,000 lives per year. Although people of all ages and backgrounds are at risk, heart disease affects certain racial groups at a disproportionate rate. In order for any individual to manage the risk for heart disease, it’s imperative to understand methods of prevention and warning signs that could indicate a more serious cardiac condition.

Understanding the Risk

Heart disease refers to a variety of cardiac events, including: stroke, heart failure, aorta disease, arrhythmia, coronary artery disease, vascular disease and high blood pressure. While there are many modifiable risk factors associated with these conditions (diet, exercise, stress, sleep, etc.) a person cannot control the role that gender, age and race play.

  • African Americans: African Americans are two to three times more likely to die from premature heart disease and stroke than their Caucasian counterparts. According to the American Heart Association, high blood pressure, or hypertension, affects the African American population more than any other race in the world. Obesity and Type 2 diabetes are also prevalent among this group.
  • American Indians/Alaska Natives: Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American Indians and Alaska Natives, and more than 30 percent of deaths occur in people under the age of 65. Research links the heightened risk to a variety of factors, including genetics, smoking, stress and diet. To date, tobacco use among American Indians and Alaska Natives is higher than any other race or ethnic group. Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin are among the states with the highest rate of American Indian heart-related deaths.
  • Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders: Researchers have found heart disease causes more deaths among the Asian population than all cancers combined. The heightened risk for cardiac events has been linked to undiagnosed high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol, along with higher rates of physical inactivity. Diabetes, obesity and smoking also play a role in the risk for heart disease among Asian communities and subgroups.
  • Hispanic/Latino Americans: Like Asian-Americans, heart disease affects Mexican-Americans at a higher rate than any form of cancer. The prevalence of diabetes and obesity among the Latino community increase the odds of stroke and other forms of cardiac dysfunction, and many heart-related events among Hispanics have been linked to high blood pressure.

Changing the Odds: Tips for Prevention

Regardless of race, 80 percent of premature heart disease and strokes are preventable. Certain modifiable behaviors can significantly reduce the risk of cardiac events, including:

  • Balanced Diet – Aim for a diet rich in grains, fibers, plant-based fats and lean proteins to lower the risk of heart disease.
  • Knowing the Signs – Identifying symptoms of poor heart health can save a life. Signs of a cardiac event can include: Fatigue, congestion/coughing, leg or ankle swelling, chest pain/pressure, stomach pain, jaw pain or numbness/discomfort in the arm.
  • Kicking the Habit Cigarette smokers should take the necessary steps to quit, as they are more than twice as likely to have a fatal heart attack than non-smokers.
  • Managing Stress – One of the leading causes of high blood pressure is stress. Over time, the change in blood vessel resistance takes away from the nutrients and blood flow to the heart, increasing the likelihood of stroke and other potentially fatal health problems.
  • Getting Active – Establishing a routine of physical activity, even as low-impact as walking, can lower stress and improve blood flow/circulation to reduce the odds of heart disease.
  • Regular Doctor Visits/Screenings – Get to know your doctor and schedule annual visits to assess health and screen for blood pressure, diabetes, lipid profiles and cholesterol. More than 40 percent are living with hypertension, often referred to as “the silent killer” due to its lack of identifiable symptoms.

About the author: Dr. Gina Lynem-Walker is a physician consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

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Photo credit: kali9

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