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Get the facts on heart disease in African American women

Posted February 21, 2022 by Dr. Grace Ayafor

African American Woman on an exercise bike

You may have heard heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 killers in women. But did you know that heart disease and stroke disproportionately affect African American women?

It’s true. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), 49 percent of African American women aged 20 and older have heart disease and they have almost two times the risk of stroke than Caucasians. Sadly, African American women are more likely to die at an earlier age when compared to other ethnicities.

Diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and a family history of heart disease are all greatly prevalent among African Americans and are major risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

The problem is only about 36 percent of African American women know that heart disease is their greatest health risk.

As we celebrate American Heart Month in February, Summa Health sheds light on heart disease risk factors, warning signs for a heart attack or stroke, and steps you can take to love your heart and keep your ticker going strong for the long haul.

Risk factors for heart disease and stroke

You don’t have to be a statistic. While genetics do play a role in cardiovascular disease, especially for African American women, most risk factors can be prevented through heart-healthy choices, education and action.

Risk factors you can’t control:

  • Family history of heart disease
  • Age, a woman’s risk increases at age 55
  • Ethnicity, African Americans are at an increased risk

Risk factors you can control:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity

Warning signs of a heart attack or stroke

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention right away.

Common symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort, such as pressure, squeezing, “indigestion” or pain that can spread to your arms, neck or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Cold sweat
  • Dizziness

Typical symptoms of a stroke:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion or trouble speaking
  • Vision changes
  • Dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache

7 ways to prevent heart disease

Lifestyle affects many of the risk factors for heart disease and stroke. In fact, women can lower their risk by as much as 82 percent simply by living a healthy lifestyle, according to the AHA.

Take these 7 steps to lower your risk:

Know your numbers

Maintaining your heart-healthy numbers in a normal range plays a significant role in maintaining a strong heart. Critical heart-health numbers that should not be ignored include: blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood glucose and waist circumference.

Reduce salt intake

Researchers found that African Americans may have a gene that makes them more sensitive to the effects of salt, which increases their risk for high blood pressure. Your daily sodium intake should be under 2,000 mg. Get a sense of what your daily sodium intake really is by paying to food labels. Reduce your sodium intake by limiting prepackaged and restaurant meals. It’s estimated more than 70 percent of sodium we consume is found in these foods. Decreasing your salt intake should help maintain a good blood pressure level, which is under 125/80.

Quit smoking

We know smoking is bad for our lungs, but did you know it’s also bad for your heart? Chemicals in cigarette smoke lead to plaque buildup in the arteries and studies show they are a major cause for coronary heart disease, which can lead to heart attacks.


Just like you exercise to build muscle, exercising is essential in strengthening your heart. The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (brisk walking, swimming or biking) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (running or aerobics) each week.

Shed excess weight

Being overweight puts a lot of strain on your heart, causing it to work harder. In fact, research shows extra belly fat correlates to higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Excess weight also increases your risk for diabetes, which can lead to heart disease.

Eat a heart healthy diet

Foods can contain healthy fats, which reduce your risk for heart disease, lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, and unhealthy fats, which clog arteries, cause weight gain and increase bad cholesterol. So, limit saturated fats, found in animal products (butter, red meats and dairy), and trans fats, found in prepackaged foods, margarines and fried fast foods. Instead, increase your intake of good fats that are found in salmon, nuts, seeds and vegetables. Also limit simple carbohydrates such breads and pasta, as this would help you lose weight.

Reduce stress

Keeping stress under control protects your heart. Stress increases cortisol, which can affect blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Plus, high stress can lead to unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or overeating. Keep your stress in check with breathing exercises, meditation or even aromatherapy.

So, take your health to heart. Each step in the right direction not only can decrease your risk for heart disease, but also reduce your risk for other conditions and certain cancers.

Grace N Ayafor, MD

Grace N Ayafor, MD

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