American Heart Month and Black History Month are the same month, and are related; Blacks are likelier to have heart disease

In February, we commemorate both American Heart Month and Black History Month, which presents an opportunity for us to raise awareness about cardiovascular health, remember the contributions of African Americans who helped shape the nation and reflect on the continued struggle to overcome disparities. As February ends, I urge everyone to commit to mind the teachings of American Heart Month and Black History Month throughout the year. That’s because a particular disparity that impacts the African American community is heart disease – the leading cause of death for African Americans and all adults across the U.S.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 20 million U.S. adults — approximately 7% of the U.S. population — have heart disease. The disparity lies in the fact that nearly 48% of African American women and 44% of African American men have some sort of heart disease. This is a lot higher than the 36% of white, non-Hispanic adults in the U.S. who have heart disease. In Kentucky, where heart disease is the commonwealth’s leading cause of death, 11.8% of the African American population has been diagnosed with a cardiovascular disease — higher than the national average of 9%.

While many factors contribute to their increased risk, what matters is that heart disease is killing Black Americans at a higher rate than any other group in the U.S., and the best way to fight this disparity is to successfully treat the risk factors.

Here is what people need to know:

Screening: Getting screened by a medical professional will help identify risk factors for heart disease early enough to treat it. Medical screening will identify if there are genetic risks or if factors such as weight, environment and habits are putting a person at higher risk of disease and death. Getting screened at least once a year is crucial for all adults.

Medication management: It’s not only important for people to take prescribed medication as directed for heart disease and other conditions that cause heart disease (such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure), but is also important to communicate with a doctor to help manage conditions and adjust medication when required.

Staying active: Staying physically active reduces and helps manage weight. It may reverse early diabetes and cut cholesterol levels. It can even help control stress and hypertension. All it takes is 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week of exercise that is enjoyable, like walking, running, swimming, cycling, dancing, playing a sport or anything that gets the heart pumping.

Diet: It is extremely important to watch your diet to help maintain a healthy weight and heart. Certain ethnic food or diets and sugar-sweetened beverages are widely embraced in many communities. Some diets may be associated with a significantly increased risk of heart disease. With risk factors as high as they are, it is critical to be diligent with limiting foods that are rich in sugar, fat, calories and sodium.

Lifestyle choices: While it is not possible to change genes that are inherited, it is possible to make lifestyle changes that can influence heart health. Cutting smoking, getting six to eight hours of quality sleep at night and refraining from overeating could make a positive difference in heart health. Also important is cutting stress, since stress can increase hormones that elevate blood pressure. If stress continues long-term, it can lead to permanent hypertension, an irregular heart rhythm or a permanent heart condition.

Fighting back against heart disease doesn’t have to be undertaken alone. It’s obvious that people need their doctors to help, but in many cases, people can also turn to their health insurer for support. Many health plans offer special assistance in the form of case managers who work with patients and providers to determine a course of action that best serves a patient’s needs.

Accessing no-cost screenings, managing medication, and utilizing benefits designed to help members stay active or access diet programs are key to ensuring a healthy life. Reach out to your health plan to manage the thing that is most important – your health.

Daniel Brunner, M.D., is medical director for Anthem Blue Cross and Shield Medicaid in Kentucky. He is an emergency medicine physician based in Northern Kentucky.

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