BALTIMORE — Every first Friday in February Go Red for Women day is amplified across the nation. It’s a campaign organized by the American Heart Association that increases awareness about heart disease in women.
Healthcare professionals talked about the signs symptoms and ways to prevent the disease. They also talked about the health disparities certain groups face when it comes to their heart health. Believe it or not Black women are disproportionately affected by heart disease and they are more likely to die from it at any age than other racial groups. It’s the reason why so many people like Rachel Graham continue to advocate for awareness around this issue.
“I and my family have a history of mitral valve regurgitation,” Graham said.
Graham said she has a long history of heart disease in her family and it started with her grandmother.
“She had had a heart issue for a number of years I remember when I was a little girl she had a pacemaker installed,” Graham said.
She lost her in February of 1991 and a little over two decades later she lost her mother the same way.
“They thought that she might have pneumonia they treated her for pneumonia it didn’t get any better. They did an EKG and all this investigation of her heart and when she was better they asked her so at what point did you have this heart attack, and she said I didn’t have a heart attack, and they said no you’ve had about two heart attacks,” she said.
Her mother like many others suffered from multiple health issues like hypertension and high cholesterol, but when it came to symptoms of a heart disease it was difficult to recognize.
Research shows almost half of Black women ages 20 years or older have heart disease, and as alarming as those numbers sound only 58 percent of African American women are aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. It’s something that ran in Graham's family and she too has since developed that same disease.
“I started having some health issues with circulation in my legs,” Graham said.
But it wasn’t recognized until she pressed her doctor to investigate.
“I go to my primary care physician and said okay here is this history that we have in our family of Mitral Valve Regurgitation, can you please take a look at it. She kind of poo-pooed it and didn’t really take it seriously. I pressed and advocated and asked that she investigate. Because there was also a point historically of Black women not being believed or listen to when it comes to the health of our bodies,” Graham said.
Each year the American Heart Association promotes the campaign Going Red for Women, it aims to highlight and educate people of the many risks associated with heart diseases like heart attack and stroke.
Dr. Yvonne Commodore-Mensah who’s an Assistant Professor at the Johns Hopkins Schools of Nursing said preventing heart disease starts with knowing your genetic makeup and being proactive about your heart health.
“If there's one thing we can all learn today, on Go Red Day, is that heart disease is largely preventable. Even if you have a family history of heart disease, we can prevent heart disease by adopting a healthier and more active lifestyle by choosing healthier foods," she explained.
"So if you want to improve your overall heart health, you have to lower your blood pressure, you have to make sure your blood glucose is normal, you have to make sure your cholesterol level is normal, you have to get physically active, you have to consume what we call a heart healthy diet. And if you do smoke, you have to quit smoking. And if you are overweight or obese, you have to lose some weight. So all seven things will help you to live longer and healthier,” Dr. Commodore-Mensah said.
She also talked about how the signs and symptoms of heart attack specifically can often go unnoticed in women.
“One thing I want to stress is that when it comes to heart attacks, symptoms, they may present differently in men and women. We know that the most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain, however, women may experience less obvious signs and symptoms. So we know that one of the symptoms is chest pain, tightness, but in women, they may experience fatigue, indigestion, and they may experience nausea, vomiting, right. So they may not experience a typical chest pain symptoms. They may experience jaw pain or neck pain, but they may also feel extremely fatigue and may not attributed to a heart attack. But it's important if you don't feel right, seek help immediately,” Dr. Commodore-Mensah said.
However Dr. Commodore-Mensah said heart disease is preventable even if you have a history of it in your family but you have to be proactive about your healthy heart habits. It's something Graham has taken to heart literally.
“The most important thing is going to the doctor regularly advocating for yourself and you know don’t take no for an answer. I’d say guard your heart you know women have a tendency to have the biggest hearts and love people and love everybody else and then don’t take time for themselves to make sure that literally their hearts are OK,” Graham said.