February is both Heart Month and Black History Month — perfect timing to talk about heart health specifically among African American women.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. For black women, heart disease and stroke are even more of a threat than for women of other ethnic groups. According to the American Heart Association, black women have almost twice the risk of stroke than their white counterparts and are more likely to die at an earlier age than women of other ethnic groups.
While nearly half of African American women age 20 and older have heart diseases, I’m not surprised that only 36% are aware that heart disease poses the greatest risk to their health. It’s true for a lot of women: We just don’t take as much care of our own heart health as we should.
My number one tip for preventing heart disease is to know your risk factors — and that means going to the doctor for annual physicals. This will help monitor key risk factors: obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Know Your Risk Factors
At your visit, your primary care provider we will weigh you and take your height. These two values determine your body mass index. Your goal BMI is between 18 and 24.9, which is what I tell my patients and what the AHA indicates.
Patients often ask me, “How do I lose weight, and how much should I lose?” I respond that the goal is to reduce your risk for heart disease, and to do that your BMI should be less than 30 — or even better, below 25.
Your doctor will also check your blood pressure. Normal blood pressure for a healthy individual is a systolic blood pressure of less than 140 and diastolic blood pressure of less than 90. Blood pressure goals can vary depending on age and chronic conditions such as diabetes and kidney disease, which is another important reason to be routinely evaluated by your primary care provider.
Cholesterol is directly related to diet. I tell most of my patients to aim for a total cholesterol that’s less than 200 and LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, that’s less than 150. Your goal cholesterol may change based on whether you have an existing condition that puts you at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, so be sure to talk to your doctor to establish the right numbers for you.
Diet & Exercise
In a sea of trendy diets (keto, paleo, etc.) my patients often ask which one I prefer. The best diets for heart health are the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and the Mediterranean diet, both of which the AHA recommends. Key to both approaches is preventing hypertension by reducing sodium intake (less than 2,300 mg/day). This means carefully reading nutrition facts on the backs of food labels.
But healthy eating is only one part of the equation. Equally important is regular exercise. You should aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week.
Signs & Symptoms
According to the AHA, only about half of African American women are aware of signs and symptoms of a heart attack. Symptoms of stroke and hypertension can range from general fatigue to loss of vision, weakness in extremities, headache and chest pain. If you have any of these symptoms, seek immediate evaluation. But don’t wait for the signs: Now is the time to take control of your health with awareness and action!