Cardiovascular disease is often dismissed as a middle-aged white man's disease, but this couldn't be further from the truth. The risk of cardiovascular disease among women, especially women of color is poorly understood, yet the statistics speak for themselves. Heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death for all women, and for women of color, particularly African-American women without Latino ancestors, there is a higher risk of stroke and other cardiac events than for all other groups.
In fact, one out of two African-American women over the age of 20 already have heart disease. Forty percent have high blood pressure, often with salt sensitivity, which presents at an earlier age than white women. Sadly, this risk is poorly known by most women, which is why it is so important to raise the alarm and make women aware of what they can do to protect their cardiovascular health.
Thirteen facts about how heart disease affects women of color you might not know:
- Heart disease and stroke are the leading cause of death for all women.
- Non-Hispanic African-American women are twice as likely to have a stroke as non-Hispanic white women.
- 49 percent of African-American women over the age of 20 have heart disease.
- 40 percent of non-Hispanic African-American women have high blood pressure.
- African-American women are more likely to develop high blood pressure at a younger age.
- African-Americans are more likely to have salt sensitivity. For affected women, as little as a half-teaspoon of salt can raise blood pressure. Researchers believe this is due to an inherited genetic variant.
- Cardiovascular disease rates are increasing in Native American women.
- One-third of Native American women have three or more cardiac risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
- 78 percent of Native American women who experienced a cardiac event were also diabetic.
- Native Americans and Native Alaskans are at greater risk of dying from heart disease before the age of 65.
- South Asian women have the highest rate of heart disease among Asian-Americans, often without common risk factors.
- Hispanic women have a lower cardiovascular risk, but higher rate of diabetes and risk of complications.
- Foreign-born East Asian women have the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease. Risk increases for their American-born and raised descendants.
Other groups of women at elevated risk for cardiovascular disease include Native Americans and Native Alaskans diagnosed with diabetes, and South Asian women. Latinas and foreign-born East Asian women have a lower risk of heart disease. Asian-American women are at higher risk than their immigrant grandparents, although still lower than all other groups.
Reasons for the appalling statistics for African-American and Native women include difficult access to good medical care for poorer women. A lack of knowledge of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease also puts women at increased danger of a heart-related event. However, there are six precautions that can help all women, including:
- Decrease your risks factors. Quit smoking; reduce sugar, fat and sodium in your diet (the DASH diet is particularly helpful here); get regular exercise and manage your stress.
- Make sure you control your weight and diet if you are at risk of diabetes, or are living with diabetes.
- If you have high blood pressure, be diligent about taking your medication and keeping regular appointments with your doctor.
- Understand your family medical history. Knowing what illnesses run in your family is the first step toward prevention.
- Make sure your doctor understands how gender, race and ethnicity affect cardiovascular health when personalizing your treatment plan.
- Make use of resources such as the American Heart Association, the Association of Black Cardiologists that is seeking to reduce the incidence of heart disease in African-Americans.