Heart disease is responsible for about 325,000 adult deaths in the United States each year — and a disproportionate number of them are black women.
Much research has been conducted showing the particularly high rates of heart-related health risks faced by black adults.
Now, new research from the American Heart Association offers some explanation why blacks — especially women — seem to experience higher rates of sudden cardiac death than their white counterparts do.
The new research suggests cultural and socioeconomic disparities, such as income level and education, as well as risk factors such as hypertension and diabetes, account for these higher rates.
“The shocking thing about this is that this is the current situation in the United States, where given all the resources, all the technology, and all information we have, we shouldn’t be seeing this kind of health disparity,” Dr. Icilma Fergus, associate professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, told Healthline.
Fergus, who is also a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, said that this gap that opens up between racial lines in our current health system has to do with a lack of resources.
She said that more affluent, educated white communities have better access to information about heart health — education on everything from eating the right foods to recognizing the signs of a stroke to administering CPR — is prevalent and clear.
Fergus stressed this isn’t the case in poorer black communities.
“I think it’s something that can be remedied,” she added, pointing out that 80 percent of the heart disease issues in the groups they studied could have been prevented if they “had more access to the resources, education, and preventative measures.”
The data for the study came from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study, which is a large-scale heart disease study that focused on four American communities — the Minneapolis suburbs; Jackson, Mississippi; Forsyth County in North Carolina; and Washington County in Maryland. It followed 11,237 white participants and 3,832 black participants for nearly three full decades.
In the new report, the ARIC study found that by age 85, 9.6 percent of people who suffered sudden cardiac death were black men and 6.6 percent were black women. These numbers were strikingly higher compared to their white male and female counterparts, whose numbers stood at 6.5 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively.
Sudden cardiac death is what it sounds like — an unexpected death that results from loss of heart function or cardiac arrest, according to Cleveland Clinic.
It causes about 325,000 adult deaths in the United States each year.
Most of these deaths occur in adults in their mid 30s to mid 40s. Sudden cardiac death affects men twice as often as it affects women, which mirrors the findings of this new study.
Sudden cardiac death is rare in children, affecting about one or two per 100,000 kids each year, the Cleveland Clinic reports.
The new study can’t conclusively point to the cause of the arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, that resulted in these sudden cardiac deaths. More needs to be done to prevent these numbers from being so high in the black community.
“Low income and lack of education are associated with unhealthy behaviors, low disease awareness, and limited access to care, which could all contribute to poor outcomes,” said lead author of the study Eliseo Guallar, PhD, in a press release. “However, our understanding of the mechanisms for racial differences in sudden cardiac death is still incomplete and additional research is needed.”
Fergus has been personally working to bridge some of the public health messaging divides in black communities. She is the co-founder and director of Healthy Heart Series, a New York–based program that aims to reduce disparities in heart disease among vulnerable communities by way of improved education, health outreach, and medical prevention and intervention.
“It’s about creating a trusting situation where people learn from and gravitate to providers they trust, gain the knowledge, and ultimately do it for themselves,” she said. “When I started working in central Harlem, I found that people weren’t as trustful of doctors at first. We started out with 10 or 20 people in the monthly workshops, now we have 90 on average.”
She added, “We talk to them about everything: What are the signs and symptoms of cardiovascular disease…[and] what can you do for yourself?”
Fergus said that in her workshops and programs, she and her team emphasize common-sense approaches to managing heart health, like eating better, exercising more, learning about the right medications to take and when to take them, and more.
She also said they emphasize the importance of seeing a doctor regularly and finding affordable ways to access healthy food. A big barrier to being healthy can be finding affordable options.
Fergus pointed out that healthy food can be accessible at a community farmers market, and that heart-healthy food isn’t just found in a trendy, expensive health food store.
“Another big part is demystifying medications. People come in with high blood pressure who didn’t take their medications,” she said. “It’s all about a cultural conversation on health literacy.
Fergus said it’s rewarding to carry out this kind of work as a healthcare provider. Research like the new study is important because it shines light on disparities in healthcare and information access, but at the end of the day, change must be made in communities.
“We’ve seen improvements over time in doing this program. We see improvements in managing diet, blood pressure, blood sugar, and in quality of life over time,” she said. “It’s very fulfilling when you walk in and see a 70-year-old woman talk about what she’s doing to stay healthy.”
Doctors stress that a big cause for this is socioeconomic disparities in health literacy and education. More affluent white communities have better access to the information they need to stay heart healthy. This isn’t the case in poorer black communities.