Heart Disease: Dealing with the Biggest Killer. (Annual Black Health & Fitness Section)

By Chappell, Kevin | Ebony, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Heart Disease: Dealing with the Biggest Killer. (Annual Black Health & Fitness Section)


Chappell, Kevin, Ebony


ONE is the No. 1 single cause of death to Blacks in the United States. The other is No. 3. Together, the twin assassins of heart disease and stroke kill 9,000 Blacks every month--more deaths to African-Americans than all other diseases combined.

But as devastating as cardiovascular disease is, research has shown that Blacks are actually more afraid of cancer and AIDS than heart disease. And most Black women believe that breast cancer (which kills 1 in 25 women) is their greatest health risk, although heart disease and stroke claim 1 in every 2 women.

In fact, the disparities in heart disease are widest for African-American women, who have a 69 percent higher death rate than White women. The reasons for the disparities include a higher prevalence of hypertension, diabetes and obesity among Black women.

But there is good news. Doctors say the risk of having a heart attack--even in people who already have coronary heart disease or have had a previous heart attack--can be reduced by preventing or controlling certain risk factors.

One of the greatest risks is smoking. Cigarettes greatly increase the risk of fatal and nonfatal heart attacks in both men and women. Smoking also increases the risk of a second heart attack among survivors. Women who smoke and use oral contraceptives have an even greater risk than smoking alone.

The good news is that quitting smoking greatly reduces the risk of heart attack. One year after quitting, the risk of having a heart attack drops to about one-half that of current smokers and gradually returns to normal in people without heart disease. Even among people with heart disease, the risk also drops sharply one year after quitting smoking and it continues to decline.

Another factor that increases the risk of heart attack is high blood pressure. Also called hypertension, high blood pressure makes the heart work harder than it should. Although it has no symptoms, hypertension is the most common form of cardiovascular disease. Two out of every three Blacks will develop hypertension by the time they are 60. Those who have high blood pressure have an 80 percent higher stroke mortality rate, a 50 percent higher heart disease mortality rate and a 320 percent greater rate of kidney disease than in the general population.

On Capitol Hill recently, Rep. Donna Christian-Christensen, D-V.I., of the Congressional Black Caucus teamed up with Dr. Richard Allen Williams, founder of the Association of Black Cardiologists, and NFL Hall-of-Famer Deacon Jones to challenge African-Americans to take control of their blood pressure.

Called "State of the Heart," the initiative is in response to a recent survey by the National Hypertension Association, which found low awareness among Blacks of the risks associated with high blood pressure. The survey of 3,500 African-American adults found that one-third didn't know their blood pressure levels, one-half didn't know the risk factors associated with high blood pressure and nearly 85 percent didn't know that weight loss could help lower blood pressure.

"Health care issues are at the forefront of the [Black Caucus'] 2002 agenda, says Christian-Christensen, chair of the Health Braintrust of the Congressional Black Caucus. She says the Caucus is committed to cardiovascular disease research and education and that State of the Heart is one element of an overall campaign to reduce health care disparities in the United States. "By encouraging African-Americans to take control of their blood pressure through regular monitoring, we hope to reduce this dangerous problem within our communities."

Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers--the systolic pressure (as the heart beats) over the diastolic pressure (as the heart relaxes). For example, a measurement would be written as 120/80 mm Hg (millimeters of mercury). Normal blood pressure is less than 130 systolic and less than 85 diastolic. …

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