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Heart Disease and Black Women: The Silent Killer that Speaks Volumes

One woman dies every minute from heart disease, a little know fact that is overshadowed by other high profile diseases for women. Heart disease, once considered a “man’s disease”, is a cause of great concern for women.  It is called a “silent killer” because it often has no symptoms or presents pain that is barely noticeable. The most commonly recognized symptom is persistent chest pain, pressure or other discomfort, called angina. This pain results when the heart is getting too little blood or oxygen. It can be felt under the breastbone and tends to accompany exercise or extreme emotional stress. Women, however, are more likely than men to experience a different type of chest pain which is sharp and temporary.

What is Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a term used to describe a number of problems affecting the heart and the blood vessels of the heart. Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the most common type of heart disease and is the leading cause of heart attacks. CAD occurs when the coronary arteries that surround and supply blood to the heart muscle lose their elasticity and become hardened and narrowed because of plaque build-up inside the artery. This process is called atherosclerosis. As the coronary arteries narrow, blood flow to the heart can slow down or stop, causing chest pain (angina), shortness of breath, heart attack, and other symptoms.

Why is this Important to Black Women?

Black women suffer rates of heart disease that are twice as high as those among white women. Some of the factors that contribute to this disparity include higher rates of overweight and obesity, higher rates of elevated cholesterol levels and high blood pressure and limited awareness of our elevated risks. In addition to having high heart disease rates, Black women die from heart disease more often than all other Americans.

What Black Women Need to Know

Black women are more likely to be overweight or obese, more likely to be physically inactive, and more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels – all risk factors for heart disease.  Black women also need to know that women often experience heart attack symptoms that are different from those that occur in men. Although chest pain is the symptom most commonly associated with a heart attack, women may have chest pain that is not the most prominent or troubling symptom or may not experience chest pain at all.

Typical heart attack symptoms include:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck or arms.
  • Chest discomfort with lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea or shortness of breath.


Women are more likely to experience other, less common warning signs of heart attack including:


  • Atypical chest pain (pain that is sharp and temporary),
  • Stomach, back, or arm pain
  • Nausea or dizziness (without chest pain).
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing (without chest pain).
  • Unexplained anxiety, weakness or fatigue.
  • Palpitations, cold sweat or paleness.


Black women need to be aggressive in seeking attention for heart disease symptoms and concerns by taking the initiative in establishing communications with their doctor: This can improve the chances of receiving appropriate treatment.

What the Imperative is doing

The Imperative is committed to ensuring that Black women receive the necessary information and skills in order to reduce their personal risk for heart disease.  Through our health education programs and advocacy efforts, we are raising awareness and fighting for critical changes to the healthcare system that will improve health outcomes for all Black women.

The Black Women’s Health Imperative is committed to ending heart disease health disparities among Black women by:

  • Educating Black women about the different symptoms of heart disease that women experience so that they are more likely to receive timely diagnosis and treatment
  • Developing a Patient Advocacy Toolkit which is designed to assist Black women in navigating health care settings and seeks to empower people and their family members and friends to take control of their health care
  • Adopting a social determinants of health approach to eliminating health disparities which helps us to address many of the factors that contribute to heart disease and other health conditions that Black women face
  • Developing evidence-based curricula and community based programs designed to encourage healthy lifestyle choices in the Black community
  • Connecting Black women to the health care delivery system in order to receive important routine medical care
  • Advocating for health care access for all Americans
  • Promoting preventative and diagnostic screening as an essential benefit in health care reform   
  • Advocating for Black women to receive access to high-technology care to ensure better health outcomes for Black women with heart disease and other conditions


What Black Women Can Do

The development of cardiovascular disease begins at an early age, and so can the foundation for a healthy heart. Fortunately many of the heart disease risk factors can be controlled by making small improvements that can lead to large benefits. For example, losing only 10 to 20 pounds can help lower your heart disease risk.  Other steps to reducing heart disease risk include:

  • Learn the risk factors and the symptoms of heart disease and if you have them, see your doctor.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Eat well-balanced meals that are low in fat and cholesterol and include several daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
  • Engage in at least 30 minutes of a moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking or another activity that you enjoy such as dancing at least five days a week. If you need to, divide the period into shorter timeframes of at least 10 minutes each.
  • Know your numbers – have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked regularly to ensure that they are in a healthy range.
  • Keep your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol under control.

Heart Disease News

Published Tuesday, April 12, 2011
(HealthDay News) -- Eating apples every day may be good for your cardiovascular health, new research suggests. Women who ate dried apples every day for a year lowered their total cholesterol by 14 percent and their levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol by 23 percent. "I never expected apple consumption to reduce bad cholesterol to this extent while increasing more»
Published Monday, March 28, 2011
MONDAY, March 28 (HealthDay News) -- The lives of millions of aging Americans are threatened by an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation, which raises their risk for stroke. But a new report finds that the condition doesn't have to arise as often as it does. In fact, more than half of atrial fibrillation cases could be prevented by curbing common more»
Published Tuesday, February 22, 2011
The statistics are sobering. African-American women are 35% more likely to die of heart disease than Caucasian women, while Hispanic women face heart disease nearly 10 years earlier than Caucasian women. Pacific Islander women, long considered at low risk, count heart disease as their second leading cause of death. Obesity, high cholesterol, poverty, more»
Published Monday, January 24, 2011
Peer-to-peer storytelling may help African-Americans deal with high blood pressure, according to a new study. Dr. Thomas K. Houston of the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the VA Medical Center in Bedford studied a group of 299 African Americans with hypertension in Birmingham, Ala., for nine months. Half were randomly chosen to receive DVDs more»
Published Sunday, March 28, 2010
U.S. minority women are less aware than white women of their risk for heart problems and stroke, although they are at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in the January/February issue of the Journal of Women's Health, Reuters reports. For the study, researchers conducted telephone interviews among more than more»
Published Sunday, March 28, 2010
Despite a decade of initiatives to remedy health disparities in cardiovascular medicine, at least some aspects of the treatment of U.S. patients hospitalized for heart attacks continues to vary according to sex and race, according to a study by researchers at Emory University in collaboration with Yale University and other centers. The results, reported in more»