Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 44% of women are living with some form of the condition. However, there is a subset of American women who are at greater risk developing for heart disease: Black women.
More than half of Black women 20 and older have heart disease. According to a recent report by the EH Project, they’re also 2.4 times more likely to develop heart disease than white women. The same report showed that, as of 2019, the age-adjusted death rate from heart disease was 165 per 100,000 in Black women compared to 129.6 per 100,000 in white women. Coronary artery disease, which restricts blood flow to the heart, is more common in Black women as well.
Why do Black women have a higher risk of heart disease?
There are several reasons why Black women have a higher risk. “Social determinants of health play a significant role in the development of heart disease among Black women,” Dr. Rachel M. Bond, cardiologist and co-chair of the Association of Black Cardiologists’s Cardiovascular Disease in Women and Children’s Committee, tells Yahoo Life. Bond says that factors such as socioeconomic status, access to health care and education, along with systemic racism, contribute to 80% of health outcomes. Research shows that the stressors Black women face because of racism leads to increased inflammation and blood pressure, which affects their overall heart health and raises the risk of coronary artery disease.
Black women are at higher risk for developing heart disease for a variety of other reasons including genetic predisposition, lifestyle factors and medical conditions. “Genetic predisposition is hard to quantify but can be roughly estimated by knowing the family history of many members of the same family. If they suffer from the same disease, they may have some shared genetic risk,” Dr. Karol Watson, professor of cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tells Yahoo Life. They may also have shared risk factors such as obesity, lack of physical activity or high salt diets. Higher salt intake can raise blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart disease.
“Salt affects the cardiovascular system because it causes our bodies to retain fluid,” explains Randolph. “When we consume a diet that is high in salt, then our bodies have a more difficult time eliminating fluids,” making the heart work harder. Over time, this contributes to high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg.
How to lower heart disease risk
There are some important heart health numbers that everyone needs to know. “A normal blood pressure is less than 120/80,” says Randolph. “However, for those with hypertension, the goal is to maintain a blood pressure less than 130/80.” Keeping blood pressure at goal significantly lowers the risk of having a heart attack and stroke.
Watson advises Black women to “know your numbers, maintain an optimal body weight and control your risk factors like high cholesterol and high blood pressure.” She shares what she calls her “five tips for a heart RESET” — namely, reduce alcohol intake, eat a plant-based diet, schedule time for yourself, exercise for 150 minutes per week and take an assessment of your risk with your health care provider.