Heart Disease in African Americans

Although the heart is recognized as a universal symbol of love, it is also a vital organ system in the human body. The heart's #1 job is to pump oxygen and deliver nutrient-rich blood to the rest of the body, a process necessary to keep you alive. Given the crucial role of the heart in sustaining life, it's unfortunate that there are several life-threatening diseases that affect the heart.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. The data of heart disease, broken down by race, is alarming. The CDC reports that nearly 44% of African American men and 48% of African American women have some form of heart disease. Compared to their white counterparts, African Americans in Minnesota have a higher incidence and die prematurely from heart disease.

While much of the research on risk factors impacting the general population has focused on lifestyle, age and family history, a growing body of research has shown that there are racial and ethnic disparities among those who are affected by and die from heart disease. These disparities are deeply rooted within social and economic factors, known as the social determinants or drivers of health.

They include but are not limited to the following:

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  • Food and housing insecurity
  • Access to quality health care
  • Lack of educational and income opportunities
  • Lack of recreational activities or safe nearby parks

Research has increasingly shown that incorporating healthy lifestyle practices such as proper nutrition and routine exercise into one’s daily life has had a significant influence on reducing and preventing heart disease.

COVID-19 pandemic impact on health and wellness

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic had widespread impacts on minority groups across the United States. At the onset of the pandemic, populations across the globe were advised to stay home and avoid contact with individuals outside of one’s household. COVID-19 lockdowns restricted access to fitness centers and restaurants. As populations complied with social distancing recommendations, the home became the epicenter for everything – from eating to working to exercising.

As wellness became homebound, many households struggled with remaining active and eating healthy. The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that racial and ethnic minority households across the nation faced problems finding time and space to get physically active. Findings also revealed that households had limited financial resources and difficulties paying for basic costs including food.

While these findings are not exhaustive, they shed some light on how the pandemic impacted households. If an individual was limited in both time and resources, their health and wellness likely took the backseat.

What can I do right now to look after my heart?

The FAITH! Program, an acronym for Fostering African American Improvement in Total Health, created 10 simple steps to maintain a healthy heart during the COVID-19 pandemic. Led by Dr. LaPrincess Brewer, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic, the 10 Commandments of a Healthy Heart was a part of a community-based program designed to improve the heart health of African Americans. Many of these steps were effective among those who participated in the FAITH! 10-week faith-based health education program in Rochester, MN and the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area.

With the arrival of Fall and the Winter season around the corner, the 10 simple steps make it a little easier to get a jump start in moving toward a healthier lifestyle. Work on developing good habits before the temperature drops and holiday season approaches, as both often lead to less physical activity and increased food consumption. Take the steps today to lower your risk of heart disease!

To help prevent heart disease, you can:

1. Eat More!

Fruits and vegetables—at least 5 servings per day and explore whole grains, plant proteins and healthy fats such as olive oil.

2. Eat Less!

Limit processed and fried foods, foods and beverages with added sugars, high levels of sodium (salt) or saturated fat.

3. Move More!

Try new fitness routines online that you can do within your home or walk/run while maintaining physical distance from others.

4. Listen To Your Provider!

Follow recommendations, including medications and any special considerations related to your COVID-19 risk.

5. Know Your Numbers!

Aim for a healthy blood pressure and weight. If you have diabetes, check your blood sugar regularly.

6. No Smoking!

Do not smoke or use any other tobacco products!

7. Stay Connected!

Social distancing means “physical” distancing. Reach out to family members, friends and neighbors by phone or video chat.

8. Know Signs and Symptoms for Heart Attack or Stroke!

Seek medical attention immediately if you develop concerning symptoms.

9. Ask Question

Ask your healthcare provider for reliable information sources

on COVID-19: mayoclinic.org/coronavirus-covid-19

10. Give Thanks!

We all have something to be grateful for despite this challenging time.

LaPrincess Brewer, M.D., is a cardiologist and Ashya Burgess is a clinical research coordinator, both of Mayo Clinic in Rochester.