African Americans and Heart Disease

Heart disease is especially deadly among African Americans. Luckily, there are many ways to protect your heart.

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women of all races in the United States. The main culprit is coronary heart disease, which occurs when fatty deposits build up in the heart arteries. This limits blood flow to the heart muscle, which can cause chest pain (angina). Coronary heart disease can lead to a heart attack.

Heart disease is especially deadly among African Americans. Compared to whites, African Americans:

  • Tend to get heart disease at a younger age
  • Have a higher rate of first-time heart attack at all ages
  • Are more likely to die of heart disease
  • Are more prone to sudden cardiac death

What puts a person at risk for heart disease?
Anything that makes it more likely that you'll get a disease is called a risk factor. Some risk factors can be controlled. Others can't. For example, two risk factors for heart disease that you can't control are:

  • Getting older
  • Having a family history of heart disease

Most of the other risk factors can be controlled. These include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Not being physically active

Having any one of these risk factors increases the chance that you'll get heart disease. And these factors tend to go together, which raises the risk even more. For example, being overweight and not exercising makes you more likely to have high blood pressure. When you add those three factors together, you're at high risk for heart disease.

African Americans are at an increased risk for high blood pressure and diabetes. High blood pressure is especially dangerous because it doesn't cause symptoms, so you can have it and not know it. But all the while, it's damaging your heart arteries and setting the stage for heart disease.

What can I do to lower my risk for heart disease?
Your lifestyle choices have a direct impact on your health. Making some changes can help keep your heart healthy.

  • Don't use tobacco. Smoking is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in the United States. Quitting is the best thing you can do for your health.
  • Lose some weight if you need to. Losing as little as 10 or 20 pounds could make a big difference in your health.
  • Eat a healthier diet. Choose whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and lean meats. Eat fewer processed foods, which often have a lot of fat and salt. Ask your doctor about the DASH diet.
  • Try to get 30 minutes of moderately intense aerobic physical activity a day. Being active can lower your blood pressure, cut your risk for diabetes, and help you control your weight. Check with your doctor before you increase your activity level.

If you already have a disease that raises your risk of heart problems, lifestyle changes are still important, but they may not be enough. Work with your doctor to get the best care.

  • Take your medicine just as prescribed. It won't work if you skip doses or don't take it.
  • Go to your follow-up visits. Tell your doctor if you have any new symptoms, side effects from your medicine, or changes in your health.
  • Learn about your health. Know what your blood pressure is and what it should be. Know your blood sugar and cholesterol numbers.