February 25, 2022
By Keira Dagy
February is here, which marks the officially start of American Heart Month.
This month is a great time to raise awareness on the risk factors for heart disease, as well as a time to reflect on your own cardiovascular health. Heart disease continues to be the biggest threat to American’s health as it has been the leading cause of death in this country for more than 80 years.
The global pandemic has only heightened this risk by the negative impact coronavirus has on the heart and vascular system. The pandemic has also illuminated vast health disparities in this country, which includes populations that are systematically more likely to experience heart disease and fatal outcomes.
It is essential for all high-risk populations to know what causes heart disease, and the best ways to prevent it altogether. Reviewing the risk factors, recognizing inequities and high-risk populations and knowing how to prevent heart disease are all essential steps toward creating an overall healthier country.
The most common risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure, high low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and obesity.
In 2019, 47% of all American adults had high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, defined as a systolic blood pressure greater than 130 mmHg or a diastolic blood pressure greater than 80 mmHg. What’s worse is that only a quarter of adults with hypertension regulate it with medication. Because of the large proportion of Americans who don’t have their blood pressure under control, hypertension was a primary or contributing cause of death for 516,955 people in 2019.
However, hypertension and heart disease do not affect all Americans equally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that high blood pressure is more common in Black adults (56%) than in white adults (48%), Asian adults (46%) or Hispanic adults (39%).
Since heart disease is so pervasive in this country, small disparities lead to drastic differences in health outcomes. For example, age-adjusted death rates for cardiovascular disease are 33% higher for Black adults than for the overall population in the U.S., and Black adults are twice as likely to have a stroke than white adults, according to the American Heart Association.
This stems from environmental and social inequities that disproportionately affect Black and racial minority populations. Systematic social inequities including increased stress, distrust in the medical system, a lack of nutritious food options and poor access to medical care have directly been associated with the development of heart disease. Knowing this, extra steps must be taken to prevent heart disease by addressing the social inequities and ensuring equitable treatment of heart disease.
For all Americans, the key to heart disease prevention is focusing on managing individual risk factors and having regular check-ups to know your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and body mass index levels. By doing this, you can know if your personal risk factors need to be addressed with an early intervention, such as taking medication to lower your blood pressure.
On a structural level, steps need to be taken to remove barriers to primary care for minority populations, as well as address basic social determinates of health like ensuring healthy food options and ample public outdoor areas to exercise in all neighborhoods.
Use this month to reflect on what you can do to lower your risk of heart disease and schedule a check-up with your primary care provider to learn more.
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