You already know February is the shortest month of the year, but it gives us a lot to celebrate. You may already be enjoying Black History Month or gearing up for a date with your significant other on the 14th, but February also brings us American Heart Month.
Heart disease is the number one leading cause of death for adults in the United States. On top of that fact, African Americans have a greater risk of developing heart disease. To help reduce your chances of heart disease and other serious health conditions, here are the risk factors to know.
High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure affects more than 40% of African Americans, and there are several reasons for this. For some, it’s genetic – something that they have to deal with their entire life. For others though, high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is caused by environmental factors that can be controlled. For example, if you smoke, eat a diet high in sodium or saturated fats, lead a stressful lifestyle, have diabetes, or are overweight, your chances of high blood pressure are much higher. Unfortunately, so is your risk of heart disease.
Because of the health risks caused by high blood pressure, it’s important to make maintenance a priority. Quitting smoking or starting a regular workout routine can be a great way to begin lowering your blood pressure. On top of that, experts from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommend following the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. The DASH diet encourages lean meats, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Keeping an eye on sodium levels can make this diet even more effective in lowering your blood pressure.
According to the CDC, more than one-third of the American population is considered obese. African American adults are 1.5 times more likely to be obese than white Americans. This fact alone is a significant reason for the higher rate of heart disease in black communities.
To combat America’s obesity epidemic, it’s important to make a commitment to an exercise program and a healthy diet, and American Heart Month is a great time to start! An exercise program can be as simple as taking daily walks; to make it a social activity, consider walking or running with a friend or neighbor. You can also utilize technology to work out. There are many free apps and videos online that provide workouts with directions and tips for beginners.
As you then think about healthy eating, start by removing foods and beverages in your diet that lack a significant amount of nutrients. These foods offer few nutritional benefits and generally don’t fill you up. Try, instead, to add more fruits, vegetables, lean meats and whole grains to your diet. These small lifestyle changes can make a tremendous impact on your weight loss and health overall.
You might already be aware of the fact that African Americans are more likely to have diabetes or prediabetes (where a person has high blood sugar levels, but not high enough to be deemed a diabetic). According to the American Diabetes Association, “The risk of diabetes is 77% higher among African Americans than among non-Hispanic white Americans.” Did you know, however, that a person with type 2 diabetes is two to four times more likely to develop heart disease than someone without?
Because of this added risk, it is even more critical for someone with type 2 diabetes to take care of their symptoms. It is recommended that type 2 diabetics closely monitor their blood glucose levels, utilize insulin therapy regularly, maintain an exercise regimen, and follow a healthy diet. One of the best nutrition tools available to diabetics is the glycemic index which ranks food based on its effect on a person’s blood sugar levels. A balance between foods that raise and lower blood sugar levels is key to a healthy treatment of diabetes symptoms.
High cholesterol affects millions of Americans, and while Black Americans have a slightly lower risk for high cholesterol than white Americans, high cholesterol is still something to be aware of and take precautions against. Doctors may prescribe medications like statins to control high cholesterol, or as a secondary treatment for plaque buildup in the arteries caused by cholesterol, blood thinners may be prescribed. It’s important to note these medications both come with their own risks. Statins have been known to cause memory impairment, muscle and liver damage, and increase a person’s risk for diabetes. Blood thinners can cause severe bleeding or even death. This has been seen most recently in the case of the anticoagulant Xarelto which was sold without an antidote and caused thousands of injuries and fatalities.
Rather than put yourself at risk for any of these adverse side effects from medication, a simple change in diet can make a big impact in lowering a person’s cholesterol. Researchers from Harvard Medical School conducted a study and found that by reducing the saturated and trans fat, refined grains and sugars consumed, a person could naturally lower their high cholesterol. Some foods to consider adding to your diet to control high cholesterol include whole grains like bran and oats, beans, nuts, avocados, fatty fish, apples, and citrus fruits. And if you don’t know your numbers, it’s important to ask!
Take time this February to talk to your doctor about your personal risks for heart disease. Make a game plan to add healthier habits to your lifestyle, and then go share your new-found topic with family and friends. Prevention and awareness is key to fighting this dangerous disease.