Warning Signs

Warning Signs

When R&B singer Gerald Levert died from a heart attack last year at the age of 40, many of his fans were stunned. But internationally renowned cardiologist Christopher J.W.B. Leggett, director of cardiology for Medical Associates of North Georgia in Canton, Georgia, says such deaths occur every day as a result of single or multiple risk factors of heart disease such as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. With more than 70 million Americans living with a form of heart disease, it is the most likely cause of death. But, says Leggett, “the disproportionate number of African Americans who die from cardiovascular disease is staggering; it’s epidemic.” Of 5 million individuals diagnosed with heart failure, 750,000 are African American, with an estimated increase to 900,000 expected by the end of the decade. In 2004, the American Heart Association revealed that an alarming 44.6% of black males and 49% of black females had cardiovascular disease, compared with 37.2% and 35% of whites, respectively, and that black women are 69% more likely to die from a heart attack than white women. Although risk factors are identical across racial groups, African Americans often present multiple factors and symptoms that are likely to be more advanced and aggressive. Blacks remain the most underrepresented and underserved population in research studies, clinical trials, diagnoses, and treatment. Despite exhaustive studies of heart disease in whites, scientists have only recently begun to study the presentation of the disease in African Americans. “Blacks still receive less cardiovascular care, even for acute symptoms. They are less likely to receive EKGs, cardiac testing, bypass surgery, or even an aspirin,” says Malcolm Taylor, M.D., assistant clinical professor at the University Medical Center in Mississippi, and director of the Congestive Heart Failure Clinic at the Mississippi Heart Institute at St. Dominic-Jackson Memorial Hospital.

In fact, according to Leggett, 30% fewer African Americans have access to the necessary procedures or treatments that could save their lives. But it is possible to reverse medical predictions through education and positive lifestyle changes.

Why we’re at risk:
Previously, age and gender were the main determinants of heart disease. This is no longer true, as the disease has been diagnosed at younger ages, and women account for 51% of heart disease patients. Secondary risk factors include high levels of triglyceride, the most common type of fat in the body, which can increase the likelihood of high cholesterol and diabetes; excessive alcohol intake; and the occurrence of a previous heart attack or stroke. “Diabetes is not only a disease involving glucose, it also causes premature aging of the blood vessels. That’s why the No. 1 cause of death for diabetics is cardiovascular diseases,” says Taylor.

The occurrence of hypertension in African Americans is the highest in the world and plays a significant role in cardiovascular complications. Elijah Saunders, M.D., professor of medicine and head of the Hypertension Section of Cardiology at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine in Baltimore, asserts that one African American dies every hour as a result of high blood