For nearly two years, the nation has been gripped by a worldwide pandemic. Daily counts of infections and deaths, coupled with precautionary mandates, has forced the conversation of health and healthcare in a way seldom seen before. It has also underscored the medical conditions that are prevalent throughout the Black community, many of which have contributed to a race gap in COVID-19 fatalities.
“The pandemic has laid bare some unfortunately long-standing racial health inequities in the United States,” says Dr. Ehimare Akhabue, a cardiologist based in New York City. “Risk factors for heart disease in addition to having heart disease itself are associated with worse outcomes after getting COVID.”
A study published last May in an American Heart Association Journal found that Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations each experienced a roughly 20 percent relative increase in heart disease deaths, and a roughly 13 percent relative increase in cerebrovascular disease deaths, during the COVID-19 pandemic. White populations saw an increase of roughly 2 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
“Heart disease is a type of cardiovascular disease that actually includes a broad spectrum of conditions, some of which Black people have a higher prevalence compared to other racial/ethnic groups,” says Akhabue, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Rutgers University's Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. He adds that African Americans, overall, have a higher risk of certain types, including higher deaths from stroke and are at higher risk of developing heart failure. Risk factors such as high blood pressure, an unhealthy weight and diabetes are more common in Black people, which unfortunately contributes to greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Below, Akhabue outlines the steps we all can take to maintain a healthy heart.
Diet and exercise. Keeping a heart healthy diet and staying active are two important prescriptions for good heart health. We are all different and no one strategy is going to necessarily work for everyone. So identify small changes that you can make. The idea is to build up to a healthier lifestyle that they can maintain for the long term. If you are not doing any exercise, this can be something as simple as starting to take walks two to three times per week for 30 minutes. Even if you only walk, you'll start to feel better and that'll drivethem you to continue to do more. For those who enjoy fried foods, try baking or sautéing instead, and cutting the frying down to only a few times a month. Simple changes like this can get you started on changes that can be lifelong.
Maintain a healthy body weight. Maintaining a healthy body weight is really important to overall health. An unhealthy weight is not only a big driver for risk factors for cardiovascular disease like diabetes and high blood pressure but also for cardiovascular diseases such as stroke and heart failure. However, you can also be thin and lead an unhealthy lifestyle. So a healthy weight can mean very different things for different individuals. Your biggest focus should be on what you can do to achieve the goal of living a healthy, active lifestyle to the best of your ability. If you focus on achieving a healthier lifestyle, oftentimes a healthy weight will come along with that.
Mitigate social determinants when possible. The conditions we are born into and where we live has a huge impact on our overall health. We refer to this as social determinants of health which sometimes people do not have full control over. With that said, certain risk factors that contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease are more common in African Americans, including high blood pressure and diabetes. The good thing is that although some of these risk factors are more prevalent in the African American population, these are also conditions that can be addressed by working with a trusted healthcare provider to get treatment and through our individual choices to manage our health.
Keep tabs on your health. Cardiovascular disease is very common so remind yourself every so often that what you do today to reduce your risk can help you live your healthiest life in the future. The most dangerous conditions are ones like high blood pressure, where sometimes people don’t get it treated because they may feel totally fine. However, it is silent killers like high blood pressure that when untreated lead to the higher rates of heart failure, stroke and kidney disease in our communities.
Build a relationship with your physician. Some people feel more connected with a physician who looks like them. "I have definitely had some Black patients tell me they were really happy to find me, which is great," says Akhabue. "But for me, it is all about building a relationship of trust with all my patients and helping them live as healthy a life as they can."