The statistics are sobering. African-American women are more likely to die of heart disease than Caucasian women, while Hispanic women face heart disease nearly 10 years earlier than Caucasian women.
Obesity, high cholesterol, poverty, language barriers, physical inactivity, and lack of information all contribute to increased risk factors for women of color. Studies have found that minority patients may have poorer health because of disparities in health care, or from distrust of their health care provider. These are factors that make it difficult for women to gain control over their heart disease risk.
Dr. Jennifer H. Mieres is co-author of the book Heart Smart for Women along with Dr. Stacey Rosen, and serves on WomenHeart’s Scientific Advisory Council. She says that patients need to develop a partnership with their doctors and effective communication is the key. Health care professionals need to relate to their patients in a way they can understand so they can be active participants in their care.
Above all, minority women need to be made more aware of their risk for heart disease. Statistics show that less than half of African-American women and even fewer Hispanic women know that heart disease is the leading killer of women, compared to more than half of Caucasian women.
Dr. Mieres also says that genetic predisposition may play a role in the greater incidence of high blood pressure and diabetes in women and men from certain cultures. African-Americans coming to the U.S. from African nations may have a difficult time metabolizing salt after adjusting to a Western diet and lifestyle vastly different from where they once lived.
Cultural norms also present a challenge when it comes to improving one’s heart health. Traditional diets high in cholesterol, including fried foods may be tough to give up. But they contribute to obesity and high cholesterol, two leading risks for heart disease.
Dr. Mieres advises minority women to begin thinking about their family risk factors for heart disease, including their genetic predisposition, in their 20s. And if there is a strong family history of high cholesterol, blood pressure or diabetes in the family, Dr. Mieres suggests making heart health a family affair by seeing a pediatrician to assess the family history and risk for heart disease. The doctor may recommend doing a baseline blood pressure and cholesterol screening on the younger members of the family.
Aside from family history, which we may not be able to control, Dr. Mieres says we all can work toward making heart-smart changes that can dramatically lower a woman’s risk for heart disease:
- Do not skip meals; Breakfast is the most important meal of the day
- Eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day
- Broil and bake foods; don’t fry
- Eat 2 servings of fish per week
- Be active every day: walk, jog, or dance at least 10 minutes daily
- Find heart healthy substitutions for your traditional favorites
- Remove the salt shaker; use spices and herbs for traditional flavors
Dr. Mieres urges women to make their own health a priority. “If you are not healthy, you will not be able to take care of your family and they need you!”