Heart disease risk in Black Americans

Knowing and treating risk factors can improve health

Older Black woman and younger Black woman shopping

Heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death among all Americans. But for Black Americans, the risk is even higher.

Research shows that Black Americans are more likely to develop heart disease than any other racial or ethnic groups in the United States. And because of the higher risk of heart disease, Black Americans' life expectancy is also shorter than that of other ethnic groups.

But there is hope. With the help of your healthcare provider, you can take steps to prevent or treat these conditions. It starts with understanding your risk factors and talking to your doctor about ways to stay healthy. Get in touch with your provider so you can get started with your care plan.


Main causes

These are the main causes of heart disease and stroke in Black Americans:

Family history

Family history can raise a person's risk for heart disease and stroke. If someone in your family has had a heart attack, heart failure or a stroke, you may be more likely to develop the same condition. 

However, heart disease and stroke can affect anyone. Even if you don't have a family history of heart disease, talk with your doctor about your heart health and risk factors.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a leading cause of heart disease and stroke among Black Americans. High blood pressure usually has no symptoms, so people often don't know they have it. Learn more about hypertension.

In Black Americans, high blood pressure:

  • Tends to be more severe
  • Starts at a younger age

But you can manage high blood pressure by seeing your healthcare provider regularly. Together, you can develop a plan that may include:

  • Lifestyle changes such as physical activity (walking or other regular exercise)
  • Diet changes such as decreasing salt in foods
  • Medication 
  • Regular blood pressure checks 


Many people don't realize that diabetes and heart disease are closely related. Diabetes increases the risk of having a heart attack and stroke. Many Black Americans have diabetes, and the numbers are increasing.

Diabetes, which happens when blood sugar levels are too high:

  • Raises the risk of heart disease
  • Can cause complications like vision loss and even amputations

These problems are preventable. Work with your doctor to prevent diabetes or keep diabetes under control.

The first step is figuring out if you have it. Diabetes symptoms can be hard to spot. That's why getting tested for diabetes is important. A blood test can diagnose diabetes and prediabetes. Prediabetes is when you have higher blood sugar levels that could lead to diabetes. 

People who have diabetes can work with their doctor to stay healthy and avoid complications. A diabetes care plan might include:

  • Nutrition changes
  • Physical activity
  • Medications, if needed

Carrying extra weight

Losing extra weight can be difficult to do. But making some small lifestyle changes can make a difference.

Talk to your doctor about a healthy weight goal and how you can meet it. Together, you can create a plan that works for your needs.


How to make heart-healthy changes

Though Black Americans have a high risk of heart disease, lifestyle changes can lower the risk. And you don't need to make extreme changes to see a difference.

Eat more of these foods

You don't have to give up your favorite foods to improve your heart health. Eating more of these foods each day is a step in the right direction:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy
  • Fish
  • Lean meats and poultry
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans, lentils and other legumes

Eat less of these foods

These foods are less heart healthy, so eat less of them:

  • Fatty cuts of meat
  • Chicken or turkey with the skin on
  • Full-fat dairy such as whole milk and cream
  • Butter, palm oil and coconut oil
  • Foods high in salt or sodium like processed foods and fast food
  • Sweetened drinks, including soda, juice and sweetened coffee or tea
  • Foods with added sugar such as cookies and candy

Get rid of trans fat

Try to eliminate foods with trans fats in them. There is no safe amount of trans fats to eat. Eating these fats increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Baked goods and other processed foods may contain trans fats.

To find trans fats, look at the ingredient list for "hydrogenated" and "partially hydrogenated" oils. The food label should say "0 g trans fats."


Other lifestyle changes

You can lower your risk of heart problems even more if you:

  • Work toward a healthy weight: If you carry excess weight, ask your doctor about a weight-loss plan that fits your lifestyle.
  • Exercise: Aim for 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
  • Don't smoke: If you do smoke and need help quitting, talk to your provider. Some health plans offer smoking cessation programs.
  • Make sleep a priority: Get seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
  • Manage stress: You can't avoid stress, but you can deal with it in healthy ways. Try meditation, yoga or deep breathing when you feel anxious or upset.


Make it a family affair

Your healthy lifestyle choices set a positive example for your kids. Teach them how to make healthy choices:

  • Keep nutritious foods in the house: Make the healthy options easy to grab and go. For example, instead of buying high-fat crackers and chips, purchase whole-grain, high-fiber crackers, baked chips, fresh fruits and vegetables. Put apples or bananas on the counter. Place washed, cut-up veggies like celery and carrots in the fridge. Consider meal planning once a week so that decisions are easy.
  • Limit screen time: Set time limits on computers, video games, tablets and smartphones. Try to keep it under two hours per day.
  • Exercise as a family: Go for walks, ride bikes or play outdoor games together. Find an activity you all enjoy and make it part of your routine.  
  • Hydrate with water: Limit or avoid sodas, juices and other sugary drinks. Offer kids water and low-fat or fat-free milk.
  • Use technology: Try using an app that tracks the foods you eat or your activity level throughout the day. 


Take charge of your health

Leading a heart-healthy lifestyle can help Black Americans lower their risk of heart disease and stroke. It's the key to living a longer, healthier and more active life. Your doctor is your partner in this effort. Talk to them about ways you can achieve your health goals.


Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health

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