February is full of things to celebrate. While Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to take care of our loved ones’ hearts, American Heart Month reminds us that it is also a time to focus on the health of our own hearts! And as we honor the leaders of the African diaspora during Black History Month, we also advocate for improvements in both society and in health that will enrich Black futures. Awareness of heart health is particularly important for Black and African American older adults because of environmental and genetic risk factors that cause poorer health outcomes in our communities.
As the #1 leading cause of death in the U.S. and worldwide, heart disease is responsible for at least 610,000 deaths (or 1 in 4 people) each year in the United States. Heart disease is a complex chronic disease that includes many risk factors affecting all races of every ethnic group. One of the main risk factors for heart disease is high blood pressure or hypertension, with African Americans being among the highest at-risk group. According to a 2018 study, African Americans were 1.5 to 2 times more likely than whites to develop high blood pressure. Although the causes for these differences in risk are still debated, they include environmental factors such as limited access to healthcare and economic inequality.
Although we may not have control over risk factors such as race and/or genetics, there are many other things we can do to lower our risk of developing heart disease. By preventing high blood pressure or hypertension, we can drastically reduce the risk of a heart attack (20-25%), stroke (35-40%), and heart failure (50%), all of which are associated with heart disease. Here are three easy ways to help reduce your blood pressure:
- Beware of Hidden Salts, But Do Not Fear Table Salt – Contrary to popular belief, table salt does not account for the majority of our salt intake! Hidden salts can be found in meat and drink preservatives such as sodium nitrite and sodium benzoate. In a single hot dog preserved with sodium nitrite and benzoate, there is approximately 320mg of sodium, whereas a dash of salt only contains approximately 155mg of sodium.
- Limit the Alcohol and Go for Red Wine – The Mediterranean Diet (MD) advocates moderate consumption of red wine due to its cardioprotective factors. Red wine contains flavonoids, an antioxidant that may protect an individual from vascular damage, improving heart health. However, red wine consumption must be determined based on an individual’s drinking habits and medical history. The Mediterranean Diet has been recommended as a preventative or curative diet for various chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases.
- Moderate Exercise as Simple as Walking – The benefits of moderate activity such as walking and light jogging can go a long way. Moderate exercise combined with the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension or High Blood Pressure) was proven to significantly reduce blood pressure more than the DASH Diet alone. Other moderate exercises including running swimming, cycling, and even doing household chores. Moderate exercise may have additional benefits for your cardiovascular health, such as increasing blood oxygen levels.
There are many opportunities during the month of February and all year long to protect our heart health — and it is especially important for African American older adults and caregivers to pay attention to our hearts! African Americans are more likely to serve as family caregivers and spend more hours providing care for a loved one than other groups, which leaves little time for caring for our own health. Take some time this month to check in with your heart — and your doctor! — to ensure that you can celebrate many more Black History Months to come.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.