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Why is heart disease the #1 killer of women, especially African American women? The answers may surprise you.


Take this life-saving advice to heart.

Dr. Kelly Bethea loves the color red. It is one of her college sorority colors. It figures prominently in her wardrobe. And then there’s National Wear Red Day®, dedicated to a cause that Dr. Bethea is passionate about: heart disease awareness and prevention. Dr. Bethea is especially keen to shed light on the disease’s devasting effect on women— especially African American women.

Consider these statistics from the American Heart Association’s GoRedforWomen website:

  • Heart disease is the number one killer of women, causing approximately one death every minute.
  • About 80 percent of heart diseases, including strokes, are preventable.
  • Forty-nine percent of African American women ages 20 and older have heart disease.
  • More than 40 percent of non-Hispanic African Americans have high blood pressure, which is more severe and develops earlier in life compared to their white counterparts

In honor of Heart Health Month, we spoke to Dr. Bethea, a Horizon Medical Director and adolescent health specialist, about this important topic.

Why is women’s heart health so important to you?

There is a history of high blood pressure and heart disease in my family. Heart disease also affects the lives of the many of the women around me, including women I work with. It’s so important for women to understand the risk factors associated with heart disease and what we can do to prevent it.

Why are women, and especially African American women, susceptible to heart disease?

The number one reason is chronic stress—especially when it comes to African American women. It’s the stress of sexism in the workplace and at home. The stress of raising children and of family expectations that women are the caretakers. African American women also have the stress of racism, which adds an extra layer of risk.

 What can women do to reduce the risk of chronic stress?

As women, we don’t take enough time to look at ourselves and how our bodies respond to social stressors. For example, it’s easy to dismiss ongoing tiredness as just a factor of being busy all the time. But fatigue can be a sign of heart problems.

Women need to learn to prioritize themselves and embrace self-care. Say no when you feel overwhelmed and learn to ask for help. Create a safe space to breathe and exhale.

What other steps can women take to reduce their risk of heart disease?

Preventive care is so important. That means seeing your primary care doctor and doing all you can to take care of your health, like getting cholesterol, high blood pressure and blood sugar screenings, and knowing your numbers. Follow your doctor’s advice on managing your condition(s).

Also, in the African American community, women are more likely to be overweight. It’s important to make time for exercise and to eat a healthy diet.

When should this care and awareness begin?

Thinking about heart health shouldn’t begin when women are in their 30s or 40s. It should start when they are girls/young women. Parents can help ensure that their children’s blood pressure is being checked regularly and help teach good coping mechanisms as well as preventive measures so that they become routine.

Women who have heart attack often experience different symptoms than men. What are warning signs women should look for?

Warning signs include:

  • Unexplained headaches
  • Being overweight
  • Unexplained chest pain
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Heart racing
  • Vomiting, especially if you are older

How can communities raise awareness?

National Wear Red Day, the first Friday of February, is a really big push here in New Jersey. Sororities have really taken the ball with seminars and other outreach efforts to educate the community.

We need to continue beyond Red Day to get the word out, for example, leveraging churches to encourage members to pay attention to their heart health. It can really make an impact on improving the health of our communities.

Any final parting advice for women?

I can’t emphasize this enough: Do not be afraid to ask for help. Showing our vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. Make yourself a priority. Prioritizing self doesn’t equal selfishness.

Understand you are prioritizing your health so that you can do the things that make you whole.


Horizon Health News is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.