Last month, February 2019, was not only Black History Month, it was also Heart Health Awareness Month per the American Heart Association. Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States.
Generally, heart disease is considered a man’s disease, but more Black and White women die of heart disease than all cancers combined. About 610,000 men and women die of heart disease each year and it accounts for one in four deaths in both genders. Coronary Heart Disease is the most common type and accounts for over half of these deaths. Coronary heart disease increases the risk for heart attacks and over 700,000 Americans have heart attacks each year.
Like other serious health issues, African Americans have disproportionately high rates of heart disease. Every month for 49 million African Americans should be heart health awareness month.
The three largest risk factors that lead to fatal heart disease are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. Diabetes, obesity, poor diet, physical inactivity, and excess drinking are other risk factors. There are other lifestyle concerns that can also lead to high blood pressure and obesity such as poor sleep and high-stress levels.
Heart disease signs and symptoms are chest pain and discomfort, nausea, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, sweating, upper body pain or discomfort (jaw, arms, neck, upper back, upper stomach). If you or a loved one are experiencing these symptoms you should call 9-1-1 immediately.
Now that I have your attention at least for a moment, there are specific ways to improve your heart health. Know your heart-related numbers. Get your primary care doctor at least once per year to check your blood pressure, heart rate, BMI (body mass index) and cholesterol.
High blood pressure or hypertension is called the ‘Silent Killer’ because many people have no symptoms of their blood pressure being high. Your doctor will also screen you for depression and other conditions depending on your age and risk factors.
Check your weight at home often (daily, weekly, monthly) to make sure that you are not gaining weight. Many people gain five pounds per year without awareness and that adds up over the years. The goal is a blood pressure under 130/80 and a heart rate between 60 and 80.
Smoking cigarettes is not good for your health and in particular smoking is not good for a healthy heart. If you smoke, you should consider the health benefits of “stop smoking.”
Consistent exercise is also important to keep your heart healthy. Be Active: at least 30 minutes five days per week. Think about how you can move naturally in your home. Can you walk more in your home? Can you routinely bike or lift weights or stretch? Make a plan to walk more by setting goals for how much you want to walk, how often, and how you will track your progress (pedometer, stopwatch, timer, calendar, etc).
Eat a ‘heart healthy diet.’ Of course there will always be a range of strategies and objectives to help maintain having a healthy heart. Diet is another user-friendly item. In other words, you can control your personal daily diet. Avoiding becoming over weight and obesity are both related to diet. Studies have concluded that a ‘Mediterranean Diet’ has consistently been shown to be the preferred diet for heart health. It is not actually a diet but the way that people in Mediterranean cultures eat for their whole lives. It consists of small amounts of meat, fish, and dairy but is mostly plant based.
Weight is directly related to diet and physical exercise. Maintaining a healthy weight is a factor in sustaining a healthy heart. This is a somewhat controversial because as recent studies have shown that weight is not as important to heart health as diet and exercise. That is to say that whether your weight is low or high, you should still be working to have a healthy diet and stay active. If you do desire to weight loss, talk with your doctor about long-term plan.
We all should strive to have quality sleep. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. If you have trouble falling asleep: try setting a regular bedtime; avoiding long naps during the day; getting rid of the TV in your bedroom; leaving your cell phone on the other side of your bedroom; reading a physical book or journaling while trying to fall asleep; and, get out of the bed until you are more sleepy.
Lastly, we emphasize the critical importance of managing stress to prevent heart attacks and heart disease. Stress may cause heart attacks and death even in people with normal cholesterol and coronary arteries. It is very important to reduce stress in your life. Work to not over-commit yourself to family, friends, work and tasks. Self-care is key and learning how to say ‘no’ is part of self-care.
Work on your mindset and how you view your world and stressful situations. Learn how to let go of things that are out of your control. Utilize mindfulness, journaling, talk therapy, meditation, yoga, exercise to help clarify what is important to you and filter out the things that may be causing your goals and vision to be clouded.
All of the above advice and recommendations will help you to focus on keeping your heart healthy and strong. Again for African Americans the health of our hearts will determine the health of our families and communities. Our heart heath is vital.
(Dr. Anisa Shomo is the director of Family Medicine Scholars at the University of Cincinnati in Cincinnati, Ohio and is a health columnist for the NNPA. She can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.)