Black Women Face Greatest Risk Factors

An Increase in Heart Disease Education is Needed to Prevent Youth Diagnoses and to Decrease Mortality Rate

Shooting back and shoulder pain, shortness of breath, muscular numbness and nausea. The symptoms of impending heart disease cannot be ignored.

Yet, when Dorett Henry went to bed every night experiencing one symptom after another, she wrote it off as "old age."

"It’s the nurse’s curse," said the 55-year-old registered nurse from

Southern California. "We never think that something could actually be medically wrong with us even though we see it every day."

Furthermore, her doctors have been less than resourceful. In fact, multiple "check-ups" revealed nothing to make sense of her symptoms.

But the RN knows better.

She knows that symptoms of heart disease in women are much more subtle and unusual which explains why a woman might feel fatigue she can’t shake, pain right below the ribs and dizziness instead of explosive chest pain.

She knows that that the Electrocardiogram (EKG) which her doctors rely on as a screener for heart disease is only 61 percent accurate in women compared to 75 percent in men.

Unfortunately, some are oblivious or in denial about heart disease risk factors or alternative heart disease detecting options.

In fact, although African American women face the highest mortality rate from heart disease “even more than AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined,” African American women have the lowest risk factor awareness, according to researchers.

Even more alarming, while other groups of women experience heart problems after menopause, African Americans tend to see evidence of heart disease at a much younger age.

At a time where doctor visits by college-age black women are often limited to reproductive health issues—from pap smears to birth control—cardiovascular health risks are largely ignored until it’s too late.

In an article in Essence, a magazine which focuses on issues exclusively affecting the lives of African American women, Nicole Saunders, a senior associate editor, lays out several ways to cut risks at an early age. Among them are quitting smoking, knowing your family’s history of heart disease, exercise and maintaining appropriate blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

"Your risk of heart disease begins to increase if your fasting blood sugar is over 120, your blood pressure exceeds 135/75, your "bad" LDL cholesterol is more than 129 miligrams per deciliter, and your "good"

HDL cholesterol is below 40mg/dL," Saunders writes.

"The fact that Black women are less aware of their risk of heart disease is alarming because they are the gatekeepers of health information for their families, said Bridget Harper, vice president of PacifiCare’s African American Health Solutions.

"Not only will the women suffer due to this lack of information about heart disease, but their husbands and children, too."

This year, PacifiCare, a national health insurance company was one of many health organizations to increase their heart disease awareness initiatives to African American women.

The major component of the Taking Charge of Your Heart Health disease-management program, addresses lifestyle issues that could contribute to heart disease.

"We are working hard to educate African Americans about their risk of heart disease; we cannot afford to lose lives because they simply didn’t have access to health information," said Harper.

While PacifiCare is working fervently to provide preventive heart disease information to African American woman, Dorett Henry, a

PacifiCare subscriber, questions the insurance company’s lacking efforts to provide better coverage for diagnostic treatment.

For example, the cardiac MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) takes three dimensional pictures of the heart and arteries allowing doctors to see minor buildups that they might otherwise miss with conventional testing. The cardiac MRI has a 80-90 percent accuracy rate in diagnosing heart disease in women. But the testing is unavailable to Dorett under PacifiCare.

"Many hospitals do not offer cardiac MRI screening yet, and insurance plans seldom cover the tests because the technology is new," explains Jennifer Mieres, M.D., spokesperson for the American Heart Association.

"You must be vigilant in getting screened," continues Mieres, recommending alternative heart disease detecting options like the

Stress Nuclear Test or Stress echo test. Both take pictures of the heart, are highly accurate in heart disease diagnosis, are available to the public and are often covered by insurance.

"Get it under tight control, and make sure you put heart disease at the top of your list of health risks."