According to the American Heart Association, only 52 percent of African-American women are aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. And only 36 percent of African-American women know that heart disease is their greatest health risk.
“It’s important that African-American women know that heart disease is pervasive and that about 50% of African-American women have a least 1 risk factor,” says Dr. Jennifer Mieres, cardiologist at Northwell Health and American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women volunteer medical expert.
To stay on top of your heart health, it’s important to get a heart health screening and to pay attention to your body.
Learn the symptoms of heart disease you should never ignore.
Feeling exhausted or tired all the time
“A key symptom is a feeling of fatigue or noticing that your exercise capacity has decreased,” says Mieres. “For example, if you used to be able to walk 4 blocks and now you’re stopping more often or you’re not able to complete the walk in the same amount of time, this may be a subtle sign of heart disease.”
Shortness of Breath
Shortness of breath can occur with or without chest pain. It’s normal to be out of breath after climbing stairs or a hard workout, especially if you’re out of shape. However, if you experience unusual shortness of breath over the course of your normal daily activities, you should pay attention.
Pain or discomfort in your back, jaw, stomach, or arms.
Some women experience these symptoms after exercise or emotional stress.
Flu-like symptoms including nausea, vomiting, cold sweats, and lightheadedness.
All of these symptoms can occur before a heart attack and can easily be confused with other health issues.
“These symptoms can also be signs of an undiagnosed condition like high blood pressure (hypertension) or an autoimmune disease,” says Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, a cardiologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital and volunteer medical expert for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women movement. “For example, lupus is an autoimmune disease that’s more common in African American women than other racial/ethnic groups and increases one’s risk of developing heart disease.”
Unfortunately, some African American women like Debora Grandison suffer for months or years before getting a proper diagnosis. Dr. Steinbaum notes that once women are properly diagnosed and put on treatment, they often feel much better.
Is This Real or Am I Being a Hypochondriac
It’s hard to know whether what you’re feeling is just the normal grind of life or a potentially serious heart problem. Dr. Mieres recommends that women keep a health diary to keep track of their symptoms. We often forget how we feel on certain days and how often that occurs. A health diary helps you and your doctor see trends that you may not be able to recall from memory.
“In terms of putting your symptoms into perspective, if you know that you have high blood pressure, diabetes, or a family history of heart disease and something is happening to your body, you should immediately think to get it checked out,” says Mieres.
Dr. Mieres also notes that women shouldn’t worry about being perceived as hypochondriacs because delaying action can have catastrophic effects. Depending on your symptoms and risk profile for heart disease, your health care provider may recommend medications and/or lifestyle changes.
Star Jones and Her Journey with Heart Disease
Many people know Star Jones as a lawyer and TV personality. Since 2011, she’s been an American Heart Association volunteer and advocate for getting the word out about heart disease in women.
For much of her adult life, Jones was obese or morbidly obese. In 2003, she decided to have weight loss surgery and lost 160 pounds. By 2005, she was eating correctly, practicing portion control, and exercising regularly. Despite all of these positive changes, she was getting strange symptoms like shortness of breath and lightheadedness if she stood up too quickly. She also had intense heart palpitations from time to time.
And then came the fatigue. “It wasn’t just regular tiredness, but exhaustion to the point where I could be barely move,” says Jones, noting that she normally had a lot of energy.
Eventually, Star went to her doctor and learned that she had an aortic value in desperate need of repair. And that she would need open heart surgery. Luckily, the surgery and 3 months of cardiac rehab that followed the surgery were successful.
Today, Jones reports that she is in optimal health. She encourages black women to go to the doctor and take care of themselves by getting enough rest, managing stress, eating less, and moving more.
“Make yourself a priority because you’re worth it,” says Jones.