Why research shows heart disease impacts African Americans more than others in US

(InvestigateTV) — Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and the statistics are even more troubling for African Americans.

A 2019 study by the Department of Health and Human Services found black people are 30% more likely to die from heart disease than whites.

The Cleveland Clinic says social factors play the biggest role in shaping health, including access to money, quality education, access to clean air and water and nutritious food.

InvestigateTV+ has a closer look at the impact that heart disease has on black communities, and the efforts to fight it. Watch the full story in the video at the top of the page.

A February 2023 report by the Department of Health and Human Services shows African Americans are 50% more likely to have a stroke as compared to their white counterparts, they’re also likely to be younger.

Dr. George Howard at the University of Alabama at Birmingham has conducted research on why African Americans have strokes at young ages. He says it’s not because they’re unaware of the disease, but it has a lot to do with managing it.

Take, for instance, the amount of salt in food.

“It appears as if blacks are disproportionately sensitive to the salt,” Dr. Howard said. “And so even given the same amount of salt, their blood pressure levels might rise more rapidly.”

Historic and systemic factors play a major role in this salt sensitivity.

Research done at Mount Sinai in New York suggests African Americans may carry a gene that makes them more salt sensitive, increasing their risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.

Black women also tend to have higher rates of obesity and diabetes, which puts them at greater risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.

Another hurdle is access to healthy food.

“In particular, something called the Southern diet,” Dr. Howard continued. “There’s a lot of fried food, collards, organ meats and sweet tea.”

According to a February 2023 survey by the Cleveland Clinic, poverty might prevent someone from following a heart-healthy diet, especially if the person lives in a food desert. Food deserts are defined as low-income communities with limited access to healthy food.

The Cleveland Clinic found about 20% of Black Americans say it’s hard for them to access stores that sell healthy food, compared to 15% of white Americans.

Across many health conditions, we see that African Americans suffer at greater rates than the white population.

Lauren Ming is with The Links Incorporated, a nonprofit service organization focusing on friendship and service for the community. Ming says socioeconomic disparities can limit some African Americans’ access to healthcare.

A 2022 report by the American Heart Association says lack of access to medication and distrust of healthcare professionals based on historical discrimination are contributing factors to an aversion to blood pressure medications.

Vanderbilt University cardiology professor, Dr. Andre Churchwell echoes this sentiment

“Personal attitudes, policies, practices, whether it means institutional practices or policies, whether it is federal government or local government practices or policies over a period of time that have led to differences in healthcare, or differences that have led to racial inequities for people of brown and black skin.”

Dr. Churchwell says heart health for African Americans boils down to resources and availability, including early treatment, early prevention, and preventative measures.

“We’re more obese, African Americans are more obese than our white counterparts, which have unfortunate negative downstream health effects, such as type two diabetes.”

The health experts InvestigateTV+ spoke to say anyone in a lower-income household will eat worse because healthy food can be expensive. One solution can be found in the frozen food aisles since frozen veggies and fruit don’t spoil as quickly.

They also recommend getting your blood pressure checked each year, knowing your family history, controlling stress, reducing alcohol intake, exercising, and not smoking.

Tisha Powell

Tisha Powell

Tisha Powell is an anchor for WAFB 9News in Baton Rouge.

Wade Smith

Wade Smith

Wade leads the production workflow and strategy development of digital content for Gray Television’s National Investigative Team. He started his digital career in Atlanta, GA in 2009 after graduating from the University of Alabama.