African-Americans and Heart Disease, Stroke

Updated:Sep 30,2014

African American Family PortraitHeart disease is the No. 1 killer for all Americans, and stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death. As frightening as those statistics are the risks of getting those diseases are even higher for African-Americans. 

The good news is, African-Americans can improve their odds of preventing and beating these diseases by understanding the risks and taking simple steps to address them.

“Get checked, then work with your medical professional on your specific risk factors and the things that you need to do to take care of your personal health,” said Winston Gandy, M.D., a cardiologist and chief medical marketing officer with the Piedmont Heart Institute in Atlanta and a volunteer with the American Heart Association.

High blood pressure, obesity and diabetes are the most common conditions that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Here’s how they affect African-Americans and some tips to lower your risk.

High Blood Pressure
The prevalence of high blood pressure in African-Americans is the highest in the world. Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, and it can cause permanent damage to the heart before you even notice any symptoms, that's why it is often referred to as the "silent killer." Not only is HBP more severe in blacks than whites, but it also develops earlier in life.

Research suggests African-Americans may carry a gene that makes them more salt sensitive, increasing the risk of high blood pressure. Your healthcare provider can help you find the right medication, and lifestyle changes can also have a big impact.

“You can’t do anything about your family history, but you can control your blood pressure,” Dr. Gandy said.

If you know your  blood pressure is high, keeping track of changes is important. Check it regularly, and notify your doctor of changes in case treatment needs to be adjusted, Dr. Gandy said. Even if you don’t have high blood pressure, he recommends checking it every two years.

“The No. 1 thing you can do is check your blood pressure regularly,” he said.

Obesity
African-Americans are disproportionately affected by obesity. Among non-Hispanic blacks age 20 and older, 63 percent of men and 77 percent of women are overweight or obese.

If you’re carrying extra weight, Dr. Gandy suggests focusing on the quality of your diet throughout the day, not just during mealtime.

“You can add hundreds of calories to your diet just on snacking,” he said.

Dr. Gandy knows all too well how challenging it can be to lose weight. After years of prescribing diet changes for his patients, he decided it was time to follow his own advice by walking at least 30 minutes a day and eliminating sugary drinks and desserts.  The hard work paid off. Dr. Gandy lost 25 pounds in six months and feels much better.

He also suggests limiting red meat in favor of lean meats such as chicken or fish, and watching portions on carbohydrate-heavy foods, such as pasta and rice.

“Make vegetables the main part of the meal and fill up with those rather than other foods,” he said.

Dr. Gandy cautioned that even things that are healthy can pack in calories.

“If you’re thirsty, drink water, not juice,” Dr. Gandy said.

Diabetes
African-Americans are nearly twice as likely to have diabetes as non-Hispanic whites. In fact, about 15 percent of all African-Americans age 20 and older have the disease.

Diabetes is treatable and preventable, but many people don’t recognize early warning signs. Or, they avoid seeking treatment out of fear of complications.

Dr. Gandy said many people associate the disease with older relatives who were diagnosed too late and suffered preventable complications such as blindness, amputations, or renal failure.

For diabetes and other heart disease risks, regular exercise also plays a key role – both in strengthening the cardiovascular system and burning extra calories.

Aim for at least 30 minutes of walking a day, Dr. Gandy said.

“That’s enough to get the heart rate up,” he said. “There’s no need to do a marathon.”

Learn more: