One in three American women dies of heart disease, and that number skews even higher for women of color. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and its director, Gary H. Gibbons, M.D., are committed to alerting women to this reality and lowering rates. Gibbons offers heart-health tips for us and reveals how being Black in America impacts our health.
ESSENCE: Heart disease often goes undetected in women. What should we know about this deadly condition?
GARY H. GIBBONS, M.D.: Heart disease is the number one killer of women, more than all cancers combined and more than Alzheimer’s disease. This is a major threat. The good news is, it can be prevented. There are so many things women can do to take care of their health. Part of it is just adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle and moving more. It doesn’t mean everybody’s got to be a marathon runner. Standing or walking more than sitting, taking a break after lunch to walk, or climbing stairs instead of using elevators all help.
African-American women under 65 are twice as likely to develop heart failure as White women. This is a huge problem, and we’ve got to do more by empowering our patients and our sisters in the community to be aware and take action. We know from our research that the more inactive people are, the higher their risk of heart attacks, strokes and dementia, so physical activity is important. Physical activity burns calories. Every three out of four African-American women are overweight or obese. Being physically active and managing body weight help control the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes all predispose women to heart attacks.
Ten or fifteen years ago, less than half of women in America knew heart disease as the number one killer. Over time, that awareness among White Americans is now in the sixtieth percentile. Unfortunately, the African-American community still lingers around 35 percent. We still have work to do to bring more attention to the problem.
ESSENCE: For many Black women, we have worked to reject society’s standards of what we should look like and a body mass index (BMI) standard that isn’t tailored to us. How do you recommend we navigate loving ourselves no matter our size, and having a healthy heart?
GIBBONS: We want you to take care of your body. You say you love your body. One of the ways to really take care of it and love it is to be sure that you’re keeping that heart healthy. It’s clear that by being physically active, regardless of your BMI, to be more fit is good. Although it’s important to control that body weight, it’s also important to be physically active no matter the size of your waistline.
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In addition, we’re understanding more that it isn’t necessarily about what the scale says. We’re learning more techniques and we can actually measure how much your body fat is. We’re able to understand a little bit more of differences by race and ancestry, in terms of body weight. There’s data that does indicate that the body fat around the abdomen is detrimental to your cardiovascular health. That’s seen in Black men and women in the Jackson Heart Study. Having a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed whole grains and low-fat dairy, and low in fat, sugar and salt. That’s going to help your body regardless of what your baseline body mass is.
ESSENCE: How does the stress of what it is to be Black in America affect our health and hearts?
GIBBONS: We recognize that where you live, work and play has an impact on health. There are social determinants of health as well. We know that people who feel a high amount of perceived stress or racial discrimination are more predisposed to depression and are at an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. There’s a connection between the mind and the heart. You know that every time you get excited and your heart goes faster, your body is responding to those stressors that are part of your environment. So, yes, a lot of our research suggests those stresses play a role.
Similarly, there’s data from our studies that the neighborhood in which you live influences health. If we give advice that you need to walk more, but there is an environment where there’s violence outside, and your neighborhood’s not particularly walkable, we know that can affect things. Certainly, there is part of that social condition that where you live affects your health.
Learn about your risk for heart disease at fighttheladykiller.org.