February is American Heart Month, so we caught up with William A. Cooper, M.D., medical director of cardiovascular surgery at WellStar Health Systems in Marietta, Georgia, and author of Heart Attack: Truth, TragedyTriumph to discuss why cardiovascular issues are prevalent in the African-American community. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the No. 1 killer and stroke is the leading cause of death for all Americans, but for African-Americans, the risks of getting those disease are even higher. And among Blacks age 20 and older, 44.4 percent of men and 48.9 percent of women have cardiovascular disease. Dr. Cooper breaks down why our hearts have so many issues and how we can combat these problems.

EBONY: What are the most prevalent cardiovascular issues among African-Americans?

Dr. Cooper: Most of the cardiovascular diseases that we think about are acquired, meaning we develop them as we get older. For the African-American community, issues like high blood pressure can lead to congestive heart failure, where the heart is basically tired of pumping against all the pressure that’s been building for years and so it essentially wears out. Also, plaque can build up inside of the blood vessels, which can then lead to angina or heart pain. There are also structural heart problems, which typically involve the heart valves (aortic valve and mitral valve) where blood can flow in and out of the heart, but it cannot go back into the opposite direction. So for African-Americans and other minorities, it’s the acquired problems with the blood vessels and high blood pressure that can lead to myocardial infarction (heart attack) and congestive heart failure.

EBONY: How can African-Americans keep their hearts healthy?

Dr. Cooper: We all really need to take a good, long look at ourselves in the mirror. Are you overweight? Are you exercising? What does your diet look like? Are you drinking enough water? I encourage my patients to take a step back and do a diet log of what they are eating during the day and use some of the apps or online tools to help them keep track of how many calories they are taking in during the day. People should also fit in 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to intense exercise a day, five to six days a week to reduce their cardiovascular risks. Also, having a plant-based diet is really important.

EBONY: So do you recommend readers avoid meat, particularly red meat?

Dr. Cooper: I’m not totally against meat, but I do recommend eating lean, organic, less fatty type of meats—not meat that is high in saturated fat. I’m also a proponent of organic, non-processed type of foods. I recommend a diet of mostly fruits, plants, legumes, and nuts, as opposed to bringing animal proteins into your diet on a heavy basis. The most dangerous thing from a dietary perspective is refined or artificial sugars, like high fructose corn syrup. That is more dangerous to be quite honest with you.

EBONY: At what age do you recommend people be screened for heart disease? Which tests should they have?

Dr. Cooper: If you know that you have risk factors—high blood pressure, you’re obese, you’re not excising, you’re a smoker, and your diet is horrible—then 40 is a good age to start getting screened. Also, you need to take an assessment of what your family history is. Did anyone in your family die prematurely, in their 40s or 50s, from heart attack, or had to have some type of intervention for heart disease? If any of that is the case, you are at a high risk.  So you should be talking to your doctor on a regular basis about your risks and having your blood cholesterol and blood pressure checked, and then moving onto having an electrocardiogram (EKG). By age 50, everybody should have had some kind of assessment of where they are with cardiovascular health.

Catch Dr. Cooper’s podcast “Hanging with Dr. Cooper” about heart health on Spreaker Radio every Wednesday in February. You can also check out his live chat every Saturday this month at 8 a.m. on www.Drcoopmd.com.

LaShieka Hunter is a freelance writer and editor based on Long Island, New York. Follow her on Twitter.