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African-American Women And Heart Disease

How Are We Different?

For African American women, the risk of heart disease is especially great. Heart disease is more prevalent among black women than white women — as are some of the factors that increase the risk of developing it, including high blood pressure, overweight and obesity, and diabetes. Studies have shown that African Americans don't get the same care for heart disease as whites because they don't get the same tests and treatments.

What Can I Do?

You can take action and lower your chance of developing heart disease and its risk factors. In fact, women can lower their heart disease risk by as much as 82% just by leading a healthy lifestyle.

Follow these guidelines from the National Women's Health Information Center:

  • Don't smoke. About one in five black women smokes. Quit, and just one year later, your heart disease risk will drop by more than half. There's no easy way to quit but making a plan helps. You also can try an organized program or a medication—ask your doctor if either is right for you.

  • Lower high blood pressure. Black women develop high blood pressure earlier in life and have higher average blood pressures compared with white women. About 37% of black women have high blood pressure. Hypertension also increases the risk of stroke and congestive heart failure — and black women have high rates of both. Lower elevated blood pressure by following a heart-healthy eating plan, including limiting your intake of salt and other forms of sodium, getting regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and, if you drink alcoholic beverages, doing so in moderation (not more than one drink a day). If you have high blood pressure, you also may need to take medication. One good eating plan, shown to lower elevated blood pressure, is called the DASH diet.

  • Lower high blood cholesterol. Nearly half of black women have a total cholesterol that's too high. Excess cholesterol and fat in your blood builds up in the walls of vessels that supply blood to the heart and can lead to blockages. A "lipoprotein profile" tests your levels of the key types of cholesterol — total, LDL ("bad"), and HDL ("good") cholesterol — and triglycerides, a fatty substance in the blood. Lower cholesterol by following a heart-healthy eating plan, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and, if needed, taking medication.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Nearly 80% of black women are overweight or obese, increasing the risk not only of heart disease but also a host of other conditions, including stroke, gallbladder disease, arthritis, and some cancers. If you're overweight, even a small weight loss will help lower your risk. At the very least, try not to gain more weight. Lasting weight loss needs a change of lifestyle — adopt a healthy, lower-calorie eating plan and get regular physical activity. Aim to lose no more than 1/2 to 2 pounds per week. Ask your doctor what your weight should be.

  • Try to do at least 30 minutes of a moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking on most, and preferably, all days of the week. If you need to, divide the period into shorter ones of at least 10 minutes each. Diabetes. Fifty-five percent of black women are physically inactive. They do no spare-time physical activity. Physical activity is crucial for good health, including heart health.
Questions To Ask My Doctor

Talking to your doctor about any health concern is important. Let your doctor know you are working on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. First, learn what is considered normal.
  • What is my risk for heart disease?
  • What is my blood pressure? What does it mean for me, and what do I need to do about it?
  • What are my "body mass index" (BMI) and waist measurement? Do they mean that I need to lose weight for my health?
  • What is my blood sugar level, and does it mean Iím at risk for diabetes? If so, what do I need to do about it?
  • What other screening tests for heart disease do I need?
  • What's a heart-healthy eating plan for me?

Be honest about your concerns and get all your questions answered. Make sure you understand what the doctor tells you.

For more information about disparities facing African-American women, visit, a website with user-friendly health information about disease prevention, detection and control for people of color.

Last updated June 10, 2008