Taking Cardiovascular Health to Heart

No one enjoys thinking they could be at risk for heart disease but we all are especially those of us who smoke, maintain a high-fat diet or consistently have high blood pressure readings. While heart disease is the leading cause of death for all Americans, the mortality rate for African Americans is much higher than for other groups, health experts say. Many of whose risk factors can be controlled by making lifestyle choices.

Heart disease is often a "silent killer," said Dr. DeVaughn Belton, a Washington, DC cardiologist. Belton noted that it can take years before heart disease causes life-threatening events such as heart attacks or strokes. Younger people, cardiologists say, need to understand that the smoking, eating and exercise habits they practice now will have an enormous impact on their chances of developing heart disease later in life.

Cardiac arrest causes 1,000 deaths a day. According to the American Heart Association, if you add deaths by stroke, congestive heart failure and other associated cardiovascular ailments, the daily death toll is more than 2,600. Why are so many people dying of a largely preventable disease? And why are so many African Americans at increased risk for both getting it and dying of it? One reason is that most people fail to report their symptoms and get help. Cardiologists say that many ignore symptoms because they don't seem significant, and many don't educate themselves.

According to Dr. Belton, many black patients, once diagnosed, discontinue their medication against medical advice. "They go home, they feel better, they stop taking the drugs," Belton said. One reason is financial — heart medications are expensive. But continuing the medication regime is essential, Belton said.

The Association of Black Cardiologists urges blacks to get involved in clinical research trials. Many times the sample of African Americans in test groups is so small that researchers can't determine the effectiveness of medications for African Americans as a group.

Belton says, there's no reason why black people can't live into their 80s — cardiovascular disease, he says, should not cut anyone's life short.