Heart failure is the leading cause of death in the country, contributing to approximately 287,000 deaths annually. It is a condition that occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs.
Dr. Alanna A. Morris is an Associate Professor in the Division of Cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine. From his experience as a cardiologist, Morris saw the many different ways a person can develop heart disease.
“It could happen as a result of a heart attack; this may occur as a result of family history; this can happen because of drug use. There are all kinds of causes,” Morris said. “But ultimately what happens is that the heart is not able to meet the metabolic needs of the body. And so because of that, patients feel short of breath. They feel very tired. Fluid often builds up in their legs or belly They have trouble sleeping, and they just aren’t able to keep going sometimes [with the] normal activities of daily living. »
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), certain medical conditions can increase the risk of heart disease, such as coronary artery disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. Unhealthy behaviors like smoking tobacco, not getting enough physical activity, and eating fatty, sodium-rich foods can also increase the risk of heart disease.
More than six million Americans currently live with heart failure. Although heart failure affects people of all ages, genders and races, it does not do so uniformly. This health condition is more common among black Americans and adults over the age of 65.
When not caring for patients, Morris is also an avid researcher, whose interests include studying race and gender as a catalyst for health disparities in heart failure and cardiovascular disease. . One of his articles, published in the American Heart Association (AHA) Journal, states that “African Americans have death rates 2.6 and 2.97 times higher than those of white men and women, respectively. Similarly, the hospitalization rate for heart failure among African American men and women is nearly 2.5 times higher” compared to white Americans.
While the relative rate of heart failure hospitalization has improved for other racial minorities, the disparity between black and white patients has not diminished over the past decade. Researchers have used access to care and socioeconomic status as traditional explanations for racial disparities in heart failure outcomes, although contemporary evidence suggests that factors such as genetic susceptibility and implicit biases may play a more important role.
“Black and Latina women tend to develop heart failure and heart disease about 10 years earlier than their white counterparts,” Morris said. “So we tend to see these health disparities…affecting Black and Latino communities at a higher rate.”
In Morris’ view, to begin to understand earlier why minority women suffer from heart failure, one must first better understand structural racism and the social determinants of health, which are the conditions in the environments where people work and live, and how these factors affect their health. and quality of life.
Despite having a higher body mass index (BMI) on average, black women are less likely to attempt weight loss than white women. Morris’s research implies that perceptions of weight vary by race due to cultural differences in ideal body image and that hair maintenance may be a unique barrier to physical activity for black women in particular.
Living in poorer areas or in food deserts is also associated with an increased risk of heart failure.
“We know that this country was kind of designed and founded in a way that kept people of color in communities that were under-resourced and had more pollution, [and] had less access to what I call the ability to promote health,” Morris said. “And because of that, we see that these risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, [and] obesity tends to be more prevalent in communities of color. I think for women of color there are other factors that are extremely important, including what we call the gender determinants of health. So, for example, women often bear some sort of burden of caring for children and other dependents and loved ones who may become ill. Because of this, women often do not take care of themselves.
Tannie Coward was diagnosed with congestive heart failure seven years ago. She initially believed she had an upper respiratory infection and went to emergency care before being sent to a larger hospital.
“It was an up and down journey,” Coward says. “I have good days and I have bad days. For the first two years it was quite overwhelming, to say the least. During my initial diagnosis I was told that I had to quit my job, my career that I had for 33 years. And I also had to close my business as a wedding and event planner. So that definitely changed my life.
The idea that worked best for Coward was to change his lifestyle. After learning she had heart failure, she started exercising more and changed her diet. She recommends people diagnosed with heart failure find support groups that can help those living with this difficult condition.
“It’s important that women with heart failure, especially black women, have the right support network in place to help us feel our best,” Coward said. “We are always taught to be strong and to surpass anything, but it is important that we understand that our support can come from family, friends, doctors, advocacy groups – anything that helps us feel better. And to me, it’s just important that women of color understand that we need help too. We need support too, and there are places where we can get that support.
Morris joined an initiative called Hear Your Heart, to empower women with heart failure to take control of their health.
“This type of campaign, which is really direct to patients, is something very important to me because it… intertwines a lot with the clinical practice in which I participate, as well as with the research on which I focus, which is really trying to improve outcomes for patients of color, women of color,” Morris said.
Morris hopes to help more women feel confident by educating themselves, asking questions and standing up for their health. The Hear Your Heart website has free resources and videos for anyone interested in improving heart health.
When it comes to protecting against developing heart failure in the first place, Morris believes prevention is key. She describes the best thing women can do for themselves is to change their lifestyle. Morris advocates staying physically active and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. She also advises against consuming large amounts of sodium and animal protein.