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Matters of the Heart: A Guide to Preventing Heart Disease

In honor of American Heart Health Month, I want to discuss Heart Disease and the threat it poses to Black women's health. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), "...heart disease continues to be the greatest health threat to Americans and is still the leading cause of death worldwide." However, the stats are particularly staggering for black women. The AHA also cites that "Cardiovascular diseases kill nearly 50,000 African-American" with it affecting 49 percent of black women aged 20 and older. While this fact can be concerning, there are ways to ensure your heart remains healthy. Below are some tips that focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle:

1. Quit Smoking!

I have to admit that this one was hard for me. Something as casual as having a cigarette with a glass of wine turned into a means to relieve stress from the time I started smoking at eighteen. While there are various levels of addiction that can be triggered by everyday stressors, the long-term effects of smoking have such a profound impact on your overall health. Not only does tobacco smoke contain a laundry list of harmful chemicals, but it also has the potential to damage just about every organ in your body; developing Heart Disease (amongst many other health issues) is one of them.

Methods used to quit smoking differ with each person, yet my advice would be to practice patience as you go through the process. When quitting a bad habit like smoking, it's important to take into account that it goes beyond the physical cravings. It'll take some real grit, hard work, and self-control to make that decision to transition to a smoke-free life, but it is definitely doable. Making a plan to stop smoking requires preparation. You have to prepare for the challenges ahead while keeping the goal in mind of what a healthier lifestyle will look and feel like. You will have to find new ways to manage your time and healthier coping mechanisms for handling stress, while also trying to break and unlearn the social rituals that you developed while smoking. It's no easy feat, but with real commitment, grace, and compassion for yourself, you can overcome any obstacle.

2. Maintain a healthy weight

This next guideline feels subjective. In my opinion, traditional metrics are based upon euro-centric standards that don't take into account women of color's weight and body structure. Physical weight goes beyond the body composition, it's psychological and emotional as well, and it is what shapes our eating patterns and self-esteem. Give yourself permission to feel good about yourself no matter what size you are, while also seeking guidance from a medical professional about how to address any underlying issues and the part that it plays in your weight gain/loss. Having that extra layer of support from a trusted source can be extremely beneficial in helping you to learn how to be proactive about how to maintain and how to achieve your health goals.

3. Control your blood sugar

Among the rules provided by the American Heart Association, this has been the most challenging for me. I struggled with being pre-diabetic twice in my life and I understand how this is can be problematic for black women; particularly, for those of us who have a history of diabetes in our families. Being predisposed to diabetes can feel like an uphill battle yet controlling your blood sugar is definitely an achievable goal. A good way to control a healthy blood sugar level is to maintain a healthy diet. Foods that are high in fat and refined sugar are processed as sugar within your bloodstream. In turn, this serves as a catalyst for your body developing diabetes. Work with a physician to learn how to better manage the stressors in your life and any additional strategies about how to help improve or lower your blood sugar levels to keep your health in check.

4. Treat high blood pressure

High Blood Pressure is another issue that Black women have to be conscientious about in regards to their diets and how their bodies operate. Although I haven't struggled with high blood pressure, I have known plenty of black women navigating this health issue, and it can be increasingly difficult, especially, when compounded with other health issues. As with many other items on this list, diet and exercise can be used to regulate high blood pressure.

5. Add movement and exercise into your daily/weekly routine

Last but not least, the American Heart Association recommends that people participate in at least, "150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week and getting regular checkups." For some, this recommendation can sound daunting. Particularly, for those of us confined (pre-pandemic) to a desk for eight-hour workdays. However, now that most activities are virtual it can be fun incorporating workouts into your daily/and weekly schedule. Typically, workout sessions last from 30-40 minutes so rather than attempting to achieve the suggested time in one session, be kind to yourself and simply focus on each workout experience. Basically, how do you eat a whale?...one bite at a time!

The recommendations listed above can be overwhelming but they are achievable. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a journey just like anything else that requires intentionality and patience with oneself. This is particularly true as you get older. While heart disease is a threat to black women, it is not impossible to beat. It is imperative for us to be on top of our health by knowing our risk factors, being consistent with our self-care routines, and going for regular medical check-ups so that we can give ourselves a fighting chance to live our best lives.

For more information, check out the American Heart Association's "Go Red" website.

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