As terrifying as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, especially for communities of color, who are disproportionately affected by the virus, heart disease still remains the greatest risk to Black people—particularly Black women. Cardiovascular disease is still the number one killer of women, and Black women are dying from heart disease and stroke at a much higher rate. Despite these grim statistics, Go Red For Women reports that a mere 36 percent of Black women actually know that heart disease is their greatest health risk. Collectively, we need to raise this number fast.
Knowing your personal risk for cardiovascular disease, can be a lifesaving first step, says cardiologist and author of Heart Smart for Black Women and Latinas, Dr. Jennifer H. Mieres FACC, FAHA, MASNC. Start with best understanding your family history of risk factors—like high blood pressure and heart disease, she recommends. “When you think of risk factors for heart disease that are specific to Black women, you think of hypertension,” said Mieres.
“We struggle with this because you could be hypertensive in your 20s, go all the way probably to your 30s and 40s, and then when you show up with symptoms—headache, blurry vision, other problems, a lot of damage has [already] been done.”
Your fight against cardiovascular disease begins with understanding your family history, but to see the journey through, you must make lifestyle changes and stick to them. When someone says “live healthier”, for some, this feel like an overwhelming place to start. But Dr. Mieres says small changes, if practiced ongoing throughout your life, can still make a big difference when it comes to lowering your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Here, we break down her best advice on the doable, small changes you should make now to fight off heart disease in the future.
Dig Deep Into Your Family History
“The important thing is, I always say, assume you’re at risk for heart disease until proven otherwise,” Mieres said. “Know your family history. Do you have a family history of diabetes or hypertension? Has somebody in the family had heart disease or kidney disease? Know that you genetically may be predisposed for vascular disease. That’s the beginning. Wherever you are on that spectrum, have a conversation with your doctor, and ask, ‘What do I need to do?’ The good thing about heart disease and heart health is that small steps make big changes.”
Know and Track Your Numbers
It’s never been easier to keep an eye on your heart health at home. You can purchase blood pressure and blood sugar monitors to help you keep an eye on how your most vital stats. “We should all have some sort of log book to look at the risk factors regularly,” suggested Mieres. “Check your blood pressure because that’s a prevalent risk factor. When you go to the doctor see what’s going on with your blood sugar. Are you inching up into the pre-diabetic [zone]? The cholesterol profile, knowing where that is. Those are three things to monitor regularly if you want to know what’s going on in terms of heart disease.”
Choose To Move Every Day
No, you don’t have to “workout” for hours each day to make a real difference in your overall heart health. Mieres says getting 20-30 minutes of activity daily can be an essential routine for your heart. “Let’s break that down, because there’s a misperception about what constitutes exercise,” said Mieres. “The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of activity every week. To get in 30 minutes a day, you could dance, you could walk, and simple walking, a little bit briskly. You’ll get the heart rate up. You call your girlfriend or family member and say, let’s go for a 15 minute walk, or a 10 minute walk, to start. Cumulatively, everything adds up. You can cycle, you can swim. You can do whatever gets you moving.”
Manage Your Stress and Make Time To Unwind
One of the instant benefits of moving more is seeing your stress levels decrease, insists Mieres, who says sleep and stress management are also overlooked yet important ways to keep your heart healthy. More and more research suggests that stress take an even harder toll on Black people which contributes to higher blood pressure and less sleep, affecting our overall health. “There are higher incidents of uncontrolled hypertension in Black people who are subject to everyday discrimination and stress,” explained Mieres. But creating space in your schedule to be intentional about relaxing and focusing on what makes you happy can yield big results. “Take 10 minutes to laugh. Take 10 minutes to meditate. Listen to your favorite music. All of these things, we know from looking at MRI scans [and research] definitely controls your cortisol levels and your blood pressure. So, stress reduction is so, so important. Stress is all around us, but understanding how to control it is important.
Don’t Neglect Your Diet
“Make that plate as colorful as possible,” suggested Mieres, who says loading up on fruits and vegetables and beginning the day with a health breakfast are important routines to master.
For more information on heart health for women, including how to identify your risk, recognize symptoms and manage cardiovascular disease, visit Go Red For Women.