How Heart Disease Disproportionately Affects Black Women in the US

Heart and vascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, but it disproportionately impacts some people more than others. Cardiovascular disease can include weakened arteries, blood clots, coronary heart disease (hardened blood vessels), stroke, and heart attack.

Black women are more likely to suffer from heart disease and less likely to get the care they need to prevent and treat it. This is largely due to inequities in education, income, wealth, and housing in the U.S., also known as social determinants of health. Genetic and environmental factors also play a role.

Greater awareness in Black communities will help women recognize risk factors and take measures to protect their heart health earlier. Education within health care organizations is also imperative to ensuring Black women get the same level of care as white women.

By the Numbers: Black Women and Heart Disease

Black Americans have the highest rates of heart and vascular disease in the U.S. Of Black women ages 20 years and older, 49% suffer from cardiovascular diseases. This compares to 35% for Caucasian women.

Black women are 30% more likely to die of heart disease than white women in the U.S. They’re 50% more likely to have a stroke.

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Why Do Black Women Have a Higher Risk of Heart Disease?

Black women are more likely to experience common risk factors for heart disease due to social determinants of health, as well as genetic and environmental factors.

These risk factors include:

  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Stress

Black women face more barriers in pursuing good health due to longstanding racism and socioeconomic barriers. For example, Black people are more likely to live in neighborhoods without easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re less likely to afford the higher cost of healthy meals.

Doctors can identify signs of worsening health early and help people change their lifestyles, access medications, or both. But Black women face greater financial and time barriers in accessing preventative health care. They’re 27% less likely than white women to receive cholesterol-lowering drugs, despite their higher risk.

Chronic stress can raise blood pressure and greatly increase the risk of heart disease. Black women are more likely to have childhood stress, as well as stress later in life.

How to Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease

The following actions can reduce your risk of developing heart disease:

  • Not smoking.
  • Eating healthier by including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet.
  • Managing stress levels with yoga, meditation, and visits with friends.
  • Exercising regularly. Aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate activity like light jogging or cycling. If you practice more intense fitness activities, such as boot camp class, experts recommend a minimum of 75 minutes a week.
  • Checking in with your family doctor regularly, at least once a year.

Symptoms of Heart Disease

Doctors are more likely to miss heart disease in women because they don’t often experience the same symptoms as men.

The following can be symptoms of heart disease, including heart attack:

  • Discomfort in the chest.
  • Nausea.
  • Cold sweats.
  • Sudden fatigue.
  • Pain in one or both arms.
  • Heartburn.
  • Swelling in the ankles, legs, or feet.

Signs of stroke include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body.
  • Confusion.
  • Trouble speaking.
  • Sudden vision loss.
  • Sudden balance and coordination issues.
  • Sudden and severe headache.

Experts at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute recognize that structural inequities and social determinants of health have led to heart disease being more prevalent in minority populations. Visit our website to learn more or schedule an appointment.

You can also visit UPMC.com/healthdisparities to learn more.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.