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Heart Disease: How Ethnicity Impacts Your Risk

    • Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Many of us know that, and are attentive to the factors that we can control – including what we eat, how much we exercise, how much we weigh and whether we smoke. In addition, we hopefully watch out for the silent warning signs that can lead to heart disease: elevated blood pressure and cholesterol. But there is another risk factor that should be taken into the equation: race and ethnicity.

      The truth is that there are differences in how diseases impact people of different races. Here are some facts:

      • African American men and women are 30% more likely to die from heart disease.
      • African Americans are nearly twice as likely to have a first stroke and much more likely to die from one than whites.
      • American Indians and Alaskan Natives die from heart disease at younger ages – with 36% dying under the age of 65 versus 17% in the overall US population.
      • High blood pressure is more prevalent in certain racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S.
      • Diabetes, which often accompanies heart disease, is more prevalent in Blacks, Mexican-Americans, American Indians and Alaskan Natives than in non-Hispanic whites.

    • The Complexity of Ethnicity, Race and Health

    • Sorting out racial and ethnic health disparities can be difficult, according to Palo Alto’s Latha Palaniappan, M.D, Medical Director, Clinical Research at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Research Institute.Opens new window “The risk for heart disease can be the interaction of hereditary tendencies with lifestyle choices, such as diet,” she says. “Add to the mix other socioeconomic factors, such as whether there is easy access to screening tests and medical care, and you have a complicated picture.”

      Part of the focus of PAMF’s research institute is to study these factors and build systems of care that are culturally relevant to different ethnic groups.

      As more research is conducted nationwide, the picture becomes slightly clearer. The recently revised guidelines for blood pressure treatment, by the 8th Joint National Committee on the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure, suggested different protocols for the medications prescribed to African American patients with high blood pressure, based on the evidence that African Americans have better outcomes with calcium channel blockers or diuretics than with ACE inhibitor drugs.

      So knowledge of racial and ethnic disparities in health can be powerful – if acted upon. Dr. Palaniappan emphasizes that the recommendations for dealing with heart disease are the same for all, however, she explains, “If you are in an ethnic group with a greater tendency toward heart disease, it becomes even more important to adopt healthy behaviors. Build healthy lifestyle practices into your routine – and make those habits for your entire family.”

      In their simplest form, follow these guidelines:

      • Be screened early for the warning signs of heart disease – know your numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar (related to development of diabetes).
      • Exercise more. Try to spend at least 30 minutes each day in some kind of movement – walking is fine.
      • Eat more fruits and vegetables. Add them to every meal, generously.
      • Minimize fat consumption, particularly saturated fats and trans fats. Add good fats to the diet. (See our Mediterranean diet plan for healthy fat ideas.)
      • Cut down on refine carbohydrates and instead include whole grains.
      • Avoid sugary sodas and fruit juice. (See 13 ways to beat sugar cravings.)