Heart Disease and Stroke in Black Women

Heart Disease in Black Women

Splashing a little bit of water on her face didn’t calm Shermane Winters-Wofford’s first date jitters. And then what she perceived as nervousness escalated into sweating and tightness in her chest.

Although she didn’t experience the typical warning signs, Shermane was having a stroke.

A stroke? How could it be? After all, she thought of herself as perfectly healthy. But it turns out Shermane had been at risk all along. Like many other Black women, she had a strong family history of high blood pressure and heart disease. Unfortunately, she didn’t discover this until it was almost too late.

Heart disease and stroke is the No. 1 killer in women, and stroke disproportionately affects Black women. Importantly, Black women are less likely than Caucasian women to be aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death.

Diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, physical inactivity, obesity and a family history of heart disease are all greatly prevalent among Black women and are major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. What’s more, Black women have almost two times the risk of stroke than Caucasians, and more likely to die at an earlier age when compared to women of other ethnicities.

Here are a few unsettling stats:

  • Cardiovascular diseases kill more than 50,000 Black women annually. Stroke is a leading cause of death among Black women.
  • Among Black women ages 20 and older, nearly 59% have cardiovascular disease.
  • Only 39% of Black women are aware that chest pain can be a sign of a heart attack; only 33% recognize that pain spreading to the shoulder, neck, or arms is another potential heart attack sign.
  • Among Black women ages 20 years and older, nearly 58% have high blood pressure and only around 20% of those women have their blood pressure under control.

The truth about high blood pressure

More than 40% of non-Hispanic Blacks have high blood pressure, which is more severe in Blacks than Whites, and develops earlier in life. This little known fact is something that, if known and treated in advance, could have led to a more romantic first date for Shermane.

But why is it targeting this population?

Researchers have found that there may be a gene that makes the Black population much more sensitive to the effects of salt, which in turn increases the risk for developing high blood pressure. In people who have this gene, as little as one extra gram (half a teaspoon) of salt could raise blood pressure by as much as five millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).

Black women also tend to have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, which puts them at greater risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. But for many Black women, particularly those who consider themselves perfectly healthy, perception may not always equal reality.

So what’s the solution?

For starters, lower the amount of salt and sodium you eat. In fact, make a serious effort to improve your eating habits by learning about healthy eating, and healthy cooking skills. And of course, if you’re not already active, get moving.

Shermane made these changes following her first stroke, but didn’t commit to them until several years later when she suffered a second stroke. This goes to show that the risks for stroke cannot be ignored – something Shermane now realizes.

What are the stroke warning signs?

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause