By Dr. Bradley Jackson
February is American Heart Month, a time to raise awareness about cardiovascular health. It is also Black History Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of African Americans who helped shape the nation, and a time to reflect on the continued struggle to overcome disparities. A particular disparity that impacts the African American community is heart disease – the leading cause of death for African Americans and all adults across the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 20 million U.S. adults have heart disease. That is approximately 7 percent of the U.S. population. The disparity lies in the fact that nearly 48 percent of African American women and 44 percent of African American men have some sort of heart disease. This is a lot higher than the 36 percent of white, non-Hispanic adults in the U.S. who have heart disease.
Regardless if it is heredity, socioeconomic status, education, environment or lifestyle choices, heart disease is killing African Americans at a higher rate than any other group in the U.S., and the best way to fight this disparity is to successfully treat the risk factors. To do this, here is what people need to know:
Screening: Getting screened by a medical professional will help identify risk factors for heart disease early enough to treat it. Medical screening will identify if there are genetic risks or if factors such as weight, environment and habits are putting a person at higher risk of disease and death. Getting screened at least once a year is crucial for all adults.
Medication Management: It’s not only important for people to take prescribed medication as directed for heart disease and other conditions that cause heart disease (such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure), but is also important to communicate with a doctor to help manage conditions and adjust medication when required.
Staying Active: Staying physically active reduces and helps manage weight. It may reverse early diabetes and cut cholesterol levels. It can even help control stress and hypertension. All it takes is 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week of exercise that is enjoyable, like walking, running, swimming, cycling, dancing, playing a sport or anything that gets the heart pumping.
Diet: It is extremely important to watch your diet to help maintain a healthy weight and heart. Certain ethnic food or diets and sugar-sweetened beverages are widely embraced in many communities. Some diets may be associated with a significantly increased risk of heart disease. With risk factors as high as they are, it is critical to be diligent with limiting foods that are rich in sugar, fat, calories and sodium.
Lifestyle Choices: While it is not possible to change genes that are inherited, it is possible to make lifestyle changes that can influence heart health. Cutting smoking, getting six to eight hours of quality sleep at night and refraining from overeating could make a positive difference in heart health. Also important is cutting stress, since stress can increase hormones that elevate blood pressure. If stress continues long-term, it can lead to permanent hypertension, an irregular heart rhythm or a permanent heart condition.
Fighting back against heart disease doesn’t have to be undertaken alone. It’s obvious that people need their doctors to help, but in many cases, people can also turn to their health insurer for support. Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Ohio has made a commitment to helping the African American community and all the members they serve to fight disparities and get equitable access to the care and resources they need to fight heart disease. Members can turn to Anthem when they need help accessing no-cost screenings or guidance to manage medication. They can access benefits that are designed to help them stay active or access diet programs and nutritious foods. They can even get aid finding help to quit smoking or reduce stress.
Dr. Bradley Jackson is the Chief Medical Director for Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s Medicaid Health Plan in Ohio.