Black communities are disproportionately affected by heart disease. While there is some evidence that African Americans are affected by salt differently than those with European ancestry, much of the difference in health statistics is due to the disparity in available resources. Family and medical history will affect your risk for developing various heart diseases, but the neighborhood you grow up or live in may play a more significant role. Let’s look at why that is.
What Are The Types of Heart Disease?
First, let’s define heart disease. There isn’t just one type of heart disease, so it’s essential to see a primary care physician regularly to catch any signs of one early. You’ll find the most common ones listed below.
- Heart Attacks: A heart attack is caused by a blood clot restricting blood flow to part of the heart. While that part of the heart muscle may become injured, unable to pump blood like usual, it will typically heal with time. Most people associate chest pain with a heart attack.
- Coronary Artery Disease (CAD): This is the most common type of heart disease. Many people aren’t aware that they have coronary heart disease until they have a heart attack. It is caused by a build-up of plaque in the arteries, restricting blood flow.
- Stroke: There are two types of stroke. The most common is an ischemic stroke, when a blood clot blocks an artery that feeds the brain, restricting blood flow. If brain cells don’t get enough blood, they begin to die, and the effects may become permanent.
- Heart Failure: Also called congestive heart failure, or CHF, heart failure means that the heart can’t work well enough to meet your body’s needs. Because it’s not working as well as it should, the heart has to work harder, which can lead to other symptoms of heart disease. It’s vital to treat heart failure promptly.
- Arrhythmia: The heart is controlled by electrical signals that force it to pump blood. An arrhythmia is an abnormal rhythm of those signals. They could be too slow (bradycardia) or too fast (tachycardia), but there are many different types of arrhythmia.
- Heart Valve Problems: The valves in the heart control the direction of blood flow. If they aren’t working correctly, it could cause stenosis or regurgitation, when blood is allowed to move forward or backward when it shouldn’t.
What Are the Risk Factors? Can You Prevent Heart Disease?
The Mayo Clinic breaks down the extensive list of things that put everyone at higher risk of developing coronary artery disease (CAD) and other heart diseases, many of which can lead to heart attack or stroke. You can’t control several of them, such as age, gender, family history, and ethnicity. However, you can significantly reduce your risk by addressing other factors, such as:
- Smoking: Nicotine and other substances damage blood vessels and significantly increase your risk of heart disease
- Diet: A poor diet is one of the most common risk factors for cardiovascular disease and one of the easiest to change right away
- Weight: Maintaining a healthy weight can go a long way toward maintaining a healthy heart
- Exercise: A lack of exercise can lead to poor blood flow, which can then lead to a higher risk for heart disease
- Stress: High stress can lead to high blood pressure and other related risk factors like poor diet
- Dental Health: Endocarditis is a heart infection common in those with poor dental health
In addition to the risk factors listed above, you should address any health concerns with your doctor. Be sure to manage existing medical conditions, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, with diet or medication if needed. If you have diabetes, you should work closely with your physician to manage your blood glucose levels, weight, and other related health conditions with a routine physical exam.
How Do These Risk Factors Affect Black African American Communities?
The risk factors for heart disease listed above apply to everyone and it’s easy to see why heart and blood vessel disease is the leading cause of death among all racial and ethnic groups in the United States. However, heart disease risk disproportionately affects black people because of the communities in which they live. Residential segregation is still a problem in many areas of the country, contributing to this public health issue.
According to a study published by the American Journal of Kidney Diseases (AJKD), African American communities suffer from many social and environmental determinants that put their residents at higher risk of coronary artery disease, blood vessel disease, high blood pressure, sudden cardiac arrest, and other heart-related medical conditions.
Most African American communities in the United States are poorer than those comprised mostly of non-Hispanic white residents. While poverty rates are improving, according to the 2019 census, residential segregation still causes black communities to remain poorer. Housing policies have encouraged residential segregation into the present day, keeping these communities largely isolated, with low-quality housing, fewer adequate job opportunities, and restricted access to education.
With lower incomes, African populations are less likely to have health insurance, making it more challenging to receive the routine medical care that would help prevent heart disease or the health conditions that are risk factors for it. Residents in these communities may not be aware of the importance of health care or where to find it. They may not receive proper health education in their local schools or drop out of school before learning about their health or the community resources available to them.
Black communities also have higher heart disease rates because of environmental factors. Less funding for health care and other resources for their residents means higher rates of developing heart disease later in life but also congenital heart defects in newborns. However, pollution in low-income areas also affects many health conditions. The Harvard School of Public Health reports that racial and ethnic groups are much more likely to be exposed to air pollution, leading to respiratory illnesses and many other related health conditions.
Because lack of exercise and obesity are significant risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease, black African American communities become health hazards in several ways. Without funding, these areas rarely have adequate access to green spaces, safe public parks, and properly maintained walking paths. Most neighborhoods don’t have community centers that offer a gym or scheduled meetings for exercise and other social activities. Those with a center often lack funding to maintain the building or equipment. Neighborhood violence is, in itself, a public health concern, but it adds to heart health risks due to the added stress on the residents of these communities.
How Bad is This Problem? The Statistics are Alarming
The aforementioned AKJD study tracked the diversity and prevalence of heart disease in 25 major metropolitan areas over 30 years. It also calls for more community partnerships to help address the issue of heart disease in different ethnic groups. While the statistics in these cities are concerning, this problem is not isolated to a few locations.
The latest statistics from the Office of Minority Health show how widespread this problem is. Let’s look at them.
- Those with African ancestry are 30% more likely to die from heart disease
- African Americans over 18 are 40% more likely to have high blood pressure
- Black people with high blood pressure are less likely to have it under control
- Black men are more likely to smoke than non-Hispanic white men
- If they smoke, black men are less likely to receive advice or resources to quit
Why is Heart Disease so Common in Black Women?
African American women are almost 60% more likely to suffer from high blood pressure than non-Hispanic white women, and stroke is one of the leading causes of death among black women. Even more startling is that almost 40% of black women aren’t aware that chest pain is one of the noticeable symptoms of a heart attack. These statistics show how vital it is to take health care within the black community more seriously.
Black women are more likely to suffer from diabetes and obesity, putting them at higher risk of heart attack and stroke. No matter the type of heart disease, lifestyle changes are the first step to decreasing the risk of sudden cardiac arrest, but it isn’t the only one you can take.
What is Being Done to Address Heart Diseases Among African Americans?
Thankfully, actions are available at every level, from community organizations to the federal government, to help correct the disparity in health care and education. Collecting data and conducting scientific research at the national level allows for better distribution of funding. For example, local community health organizations can now apply for grants through state and government programs. These programs are designed to spread awareness and help treat those with heart conditions in underserved communities.
Healthcare workers within these neighborhoods can educate their patients about resources for low-income households. These resources may include opportunities to attend a school with grants or vocational rehabilitation programs to enter higher-paying career fields. Faith-based and non-profit organizations can bolster their outreach services into underprivileged communities.
Heart disease risk among African populations in the US will only improve by treating the communities as well as those who live there. If you are experiencing heart disease or chest pain symptoms, you should seek medical care as soon as possible. A family history of heart disease is not the only reason to eat a healthy diet and take care of your physical health. Make lifestyle changes, and be sure to locate neighborhood resources. While the health statistics are shocking, they don’t need to stay that way. Awareness, resources, and advocacy about heart diseases in black communities can change the tide.