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Keeping African American Hearts Healthy

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Black History Month is winding down, but February is also American Heart Month. And heart health is something African Americans should pay special attention to. When looking at the risk factors for heart disease, they are no different for African Americans then they are for anyone else. "High blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, smoking, a family history of heart disease. And then there are secondary risk factors such as obesity and inactivity. But it's the same whether you're black or white. The difference really is the frequency or the prevalence of these risk factors in the (African American) population," said Dr. Paul Tamburro, the Medical Director of Cardiovascular Services at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola.

Dr. Tamburro says that while those risk factors are the same, the difference in the number of African Americans with heart disease compared to other populations is pretty stark. "The incidence of heart disease is 47 percent in African American females, 44 percent in African American male. Contrast that to 37 percent in white males, 33 percent in white females. Across the board. You're looking at (a) 25 percent greater likelihood of having heart disease."

And the biggest risk factor appears to be hypertension or high blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, the prevalence of high blood pressure in African-Americans is the highest in the world. However, research has shown that African Americans have on average slightly lower cholesterol. But these are just averages and each individual is different.

"Right now, as you're (reading) these words, if you don't know your blood pressure, and if you don't know your cholesterol values, make a point of finding out today or tomorrow. Every adult should know his or her blood pressure and cholesterol values" said Dr. Marc Gillinov, a heart surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. "People have heard that so many times that it seems like background noise, until (heart disease) strikes. And the odds are that if you're an American, or you live anywhere in the western world, the odds are that you are going to get cardiovascular disease. And our message is that, for the most part, you don't have to. You can prevent it."

So how can you prevent heart disease? Dr. Tamburro says, just like the risk factors, the recommendations are the same for everyone. "You should be as active as you possibly can. The American Heart Association recommends that people exercise three to four times weekly, a minimum of 30 minutes of vigorous, aerobic exercise. Now just about everybody can do this. We're not talking running a marathon. We're talking 30 minutes of a brisk walk, three or four times a week. (This is) proven to be as valuable for prevent all the bad things we've already discussed as just about any medicine I can give you."

Dr. Tamburro points out that staying active also means little things like parking the car a bit further from the store or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. And then there's diet.

"Watch alcohol. Watch salt for blood pressure. I get asked all the time what's the best diet. As far as what diets have been proven to be protective for your heart (the consensus is) a Mediterranean diet, or in general a diet that's limited in processed foods, limited in added salt and sodium, and limited in refined flours (and) grains. So those are just some general dietary guidelines that are good for everybody."

If your doctor recommends medication to help control your cholesterol levels or your blood pressure, Dr. Tamburro says stay on your meds. And one more thing: quit smoking or don’t start! It’s one of the single biggest acts you can take to live a longer, healthier life.