Getting to the Heart of the Matter: A Look at African Americans Battle with Heart Disease

Jo-Carolyn Goode | 2/16/2018, 7:43 a.m.
She felt like she has lost all control is how a then 47-year-old Wanda Walton described her bout with heart ...

She felt like she has lost all control is how a then 47-year-old Wanda Walton described her bout with heart disease. With her family in tow, Walton was driving when all of a sudden her left side went numb and she swerved the car off the road. When it happened the second time, her daughter knew something was terribly wrong. Walton’s then husband knew too and he sprung into action taking the wheel of the vehicle and made a beeline straight to the hospital while Walton screamed in pain.

After a battery of tests, Walton was diagnosed as having had a stroke. She also found out that the headaches, dizziness, nausea, and blurred vision that she had in prior weeks were ischemic attacks or mini-strokes. Walton always thought she was too young to have a stroke. “That’s for older people,” she said when the doctor had warned her earlier to get her blood pressure and cholesterol down. Not only did her blood pressure and cholesterol put Walton at a greater risk of getting a stroke but also her family history played a role. Both her grandfather and great-grandfather died of strokes in their 50s.

It would be two years of physical, occupational, and speech therapy before Walton would walk and speak again. She never regained feeling in her left side. She walks with the aid of ankle-foot-orthotic leg brace and cane. Plus, she has short term memory issues and feels a pins-and-needles sensation in the cold. Her life changed drastically. But she is not bitter. In fact, Walton feels quite the opposite. With a grateful heart, she feels very blessed. “I believe the stroke had to occur for me to live out my purpose,” said Walton who now volunteers at a local hospital and church to be a role model to stroke survivors and their families.

February is heart health month. As the second largest racial group in the United States, African Americans’ high blood rates have increased by 10% under the new diagnostic guidelines that rate high blood pressure starts at 130/80. The change from the previous rate of 140/90 makes the problem even more prevalent for the population. African-Americans have a higher rate of heart attacks, sudden cardiac arrest, heart failure and strokes than white people

What is heart disease?

Heart disease, as defined by the American Heart Association, includes a number of problems that relate to a build up of plaque in the walls of the arteries. This build up narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to flow through. If a blood clot develops, blood can be stopped resulting in a heart attack or stroke.

While overall death from heart disease has decreased, African Americans seemed to still be affected at an alarming rate. “We still see higher rates of heart disease and risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes in African Americans as compared to whites, and higher death rates from heart attack and stroke,” said Mercedes Carrenthon, Ph.D., associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and chair of the group that wrote the new statement, published in Circulation.