Heart disease has haunted generations of Robin Drummond's family. "I have a
family history of
heart disease on both sides," says the 55-year-old African-American and
resident of Hammond, La. "I've had uncles, aunts, and grandparents who've died
heart attacks and heart disease, and two of my mother's brothers died four
months apart. One had a heart attack in church, and four months later, one had
a heart attack in the post office."
When Drummond's father succumbed to heart disease at age 50,
she was shaken. "Particularly when my dad died, I wanted to make sure that I
was OK," she says. In 2002, she went to her doctor for testing and learned that
her heart was mildly enlarged, placing her at risk for
heart failure. Drummond, a registered dietitian, took strenuous measures to
ward off trouble. But not all African-Americans are aware of the danger.
"I never thought it could happen to me."
That's how Rose Rench reacted when doctors told her she was having a heart
attack. At age 46, Rench was bewildered when she suddenly couldn't catch her
breath while out for a walk on a sunny spring day. "I was young, I was 130
pounds, and I'd quit smoking a month before. I was healthy. But I couldn't
Rench tells WebMD that she somehow drove herself home, but couldn't rest;
her mind raced as she tried to gasp for breath. "I thought maybe I...
In a startling 2009 study published in the New England
Journal of Medicine, researchers found that African-Americans have a much
higher incidence of heart failure than other races, and it develops at younger
ages. Heart failure means that the heart isn't able to pump blood as well as it
Before age 50, African-Americans' heart failure rate is 20
times higher than that of whites, according to the study. Four risk factors are
the strongest predictors of heart failure:
high blood pressure (also called hypertension), chronic
kidney disease, being
overweight, and having low levels of HDL, the "good"
cholesterol. Three-fourths of African-Americans who develop heart failure
blood pressure by age 40.
African-Americans and Health Care
To prevent heart failure and other heart disease, it's crucial
to treat risk factors successfully, says Anne L. Taylor, MD, a professor of
medicine at New York Presbyterian Hospital and vice dean of academic affairs at
Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. But, compared with
their white peers, African-Americans often have less access to health care, she
says. Not only are they less likely to visit a doctor and get routine
screenings, but they're less likely to be referred to specialists.