African-American women are 1.6 times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to have high blood pressure, putting them ahead of the pack when it comes to heart disease risk. But a new study in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation, shows that the same group is lagging behind when it comes to knowing what the risk factors for heart disease are.
"There's good news and bad news. The rate of awareness of heart disease as a leading threat, the leading cause of death for women, has doubled in the last 15 years for both white women and black women," said Lori Mosca, M.D., the lead author of the study. "Unfortunately, there's still a minority gap in awareness. Black women are at the level of awareness in 2012 -- 30 percent -- as white women were in 1997."
Mosca's research, conducted between August and October 2012, included online and telephone surveys with more than 1,200 women ages 25 and older. Mosca and her team then compared results from surveys taken in 1997, 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009 assessing women's lifestyle, awareness of the leading cause of death and warning signs of a heart attack, and what they would do if they experienced heart attack symptoms.
"We're improving the level of awareness for everybody equally overall, but since black women started at half the level to begin with, I'm concerned that we need more sustained and more targeted efforts to African-American women," Mosca said.
Mosca said the African-American women involved in her study expressed a greater level of trust in their doctors when compared to white women, and that factor could be used to help increase awareness about heart health. Additionally, she emphasized the importance of taking preventive action.
Here are eight ways to get a jump on those preventive measures today:
"There's a link between your awareness level and your likelihood to take preventive action," Mosca said. Bring a list of questions to your annual check-up to help you and your doctor get to the bottom of what your risk for developing heart disease or stroke is, such as what your blood pressure level is and what it should be.
"Personal risk is a result of several factors. There's genetic risk and there's lifestyle risk. Lifestyle choices are related to our culture and personal behaviors," Moska said, adding that it is important for doctors to be culturally sensitive when motivating women to get their blood pressure and other risk factors in check. One way black women can take control is to adapt family recipes to be lower in salt, Moska suggested. Check out this list of high-sodium foods as a guide.
Eating a diet that's rich in fruits and vegetables can lower blood pressure, the most prominent risk factor among African-American women, Moska said. Incorporating more fiber and eating fish at least twice a week will also have a positive impact on heart disease risk, she added. A 2011 study by researchers at Northwestern University found that a diet high in fiber -- meaning 25 grams of dietary fiber or more a day, according to the American Heart Association -- could be a critical heart-healthy lifestyle change young and middle-aged adults can make. One change that won't lower your risk, however, is dietary supplements. "Many women are not really aware of what the evidenced-based approaches are to reducing heart disease," Moska said. "Many women still believe that supplements will protect them and we have no evidence for that."
"We've learned that social support is a very important protector for the heart," Moska says. Encourage your friends to get regular exercise together and keep in mind that 60 minutes a day is key to maintaining or losing weight. "30 minutes is probably not enough," Moska added -- though it doesn't have to be heavy, intense exercise. Moderate, brisk walking has been shown to help lower risk, too. In October, Danish researchers released the results of a study supporting Moska's claim -- that brisk walking every day can halve the chance of a heart attack or stroke.
"We found in our survey that self-reported depression was very common," Moska said. "This is a very important risk factor among minorities and is a very powerful predictor of developing heart disease." 20 to 30 percent of all heart patients develop depression, according to a report last year by Psychology Today. In turn, depressed individuals often have unfavorable changes in blood pressure, blood clotting, inflammation and circulating stress hormones, all factors associated with coronary heart disease.