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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

Heart Disease in the African American Community

Feb 28, 2020 09:30AM ● By Ifini Sheppard
While heart disease is a threat to life in virtually every community, African Americans suffer from it at a higher rate than any other group.

The statistics are chilling. According to the Center for Disease Control, Americans endure more than 1.5 million heart attacks and strokes every year. Black people have a higher rate of heart attacks, sudden cardiac arrest, heart failure and strokes. Heart disease and stroke risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes start at an earlier age among black people than white people. Nearly 44% of African American men and 48% of African American women have some form of cardiovascular disease that includes heart disease and stroke.

The CDC states that African American women are more likely to have a stroke than any other group of women, twice as likely to have a stroke as white women, more likely to have strokes at younger ages and more likely have more severe strokes. The statistics are reflected in life expectancy, as well. In 2010, African Americans were 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic whites.

Poverty is a major factor in the higher rates of heart disease and stroke among black people, but even middle- and upper-class black people are at higher risk than middle- and upper-class white people. “Although most people experience stress from jobs and major life events, African Americans are more likely to have persistent economic stress and to face concerns about maintaining their health, including preventing weight gain and managing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes,” says Mercedes R. Carnethon, PhD, FAHA, associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Dr. Mark Armstrong, naturopathic practitioner, doctor of Chinese medicine, neuromuscular therapist and owner of Ahimki Center for Wholeness in Roswell, describes the unique impact of diet, stress and environment on the African American heart: “In Chinese medicine, the heart is related to 91 aspects of spirit, and to Native Americans, the heart represents the strength and soul of an individual,” says Armstrong. “But in [the African American] world, they flipped it on us. They took away our strength and gave us pain. They broke our hearts by stealing children and raping and pillaging. We never overcame that. We’re always post-traumatic stressed and that affects the heart.”

In the eras of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, disenfranchisement, red lining, police brutality, housing ghettos, food deserts and unemployment—the stress upon African Americans has been relentless; many of these issues are still present today.

Respiratory therapist and founder of Three Hearts - One Beat, a heart-health coaching service company, Sharon Reid is a health and wellness industry leader and works with Heart Saver CPR/AED and Basic Life Support-Healthcare Providers, among others. Reid explains that “lack of prevention is the number one reason African American people lead in cardiovascular disease. Family history, genetics and medical and financial access to healthcare also play a role.”

What solutions are available, then? How can blacks reduce the disparity, feel better and live longer?

The American Heart Association reports that a vegan diet can decrease heart disease and stroke risk in African Americans. In addition to improving the diet and getting more exercise, both Reid and Armstrong offer more holistic approaches. Reid’s “three-dimensional prescription” for heart health is to strive to be physically fit, emotionally attentive and spiritually conscious. She suggests that healing hurtful experiences can also decrease the risks of cardiac illnesses and recommends doing what she calls the “Heart Pledge”: Place a hand on your heart, thank the heart for its endless hard work and efforts and make a promise to take care of it for good health, love and life. 

Armstrong recommends therapeutic methods such as soul constellations, an individual or group process that helps people heal internalized family traumas, and other practices that clear negative emotional programming. “These can liberate African Americans from the habits of our cultural eating and help wake up our consciousness,” he explains. “We always knew better, but we didn’t always do better because we had to do what we had to do.”

Ifini Sheppard served as Community Relations & Education Liaison at Sevananda Natural Foods Market for nine years. Her mission is to teach people how to be healthy on a budget. Contact her at [email protected] To learn more about Three Hearts – One Beat, visit ThreeHeartsOneBeat.com. For information about Ahimki Center for Wholeness, go to Ahimki.net.

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