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National Minority Health Month: Live longer and better

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African-American family outdoorsThis blog post was written by by Dr. Clyde Yancy, renowned cardiologist and former American Heart Association president.

The month of April shines a light on heart health in minorities. Why celebrate National Minority Health Month? Heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 and No. 5 killers of all Americans. The risks are higher in African-Americans. And, alarmingly, many don’t know their risks, whether they are based on genetics, lifestyle or a combination. Heart disease and stroke aren’t “one race fits all” issues.

Just consider these statistics:

African-Americans have the higher prevalence of heart disease and stroke. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for African-Americans. They face higher prevalence of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, and challenging complications of hypertension including stroke, kidney disease and heart failure.
If this problem sounds epic, it is; the prevalence of hypertension among African-Americans is one of the highest in the world. The risk of developing heart failure is higher in African-Americans.

Many risk factors for heart disease also increase the risk of stroke. And for African-Americans between the ages of 45 and 64, the risk of stroke has been estimated to be two-to-three times greater than for white people. Even with the same degree of blood pressure control, kidney disease progresses faster for African-Americans.

The now well-recognized “Life’s Simple 7,” developed by the American Heart Association, offers everyone important steps to take toward a heart-healthy life.

None of these facts sound worthy of a celebration but taken together, “there is power in the package”. And, the good news is, with a few simple adjustments in lifestyle, much of this risk can be reduced. And, it all starts with Life’s Simple 7.

Life’s Simple 7

Here’s a quick look at the behaviors and factors that make up Life’s Simple 7:

  1. Don’t smoke.
  2. Remain physically active.
  3. Aim for a healthy weight. (Many of us can afford to lose a few pounds.)
  4. Follow a heart-healthy diet –fruits, vegetables, whole grains; low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, nontropical vegetable oils, and nuts; limit sodium, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.
  5. Manage your blood pressure.
  6. Control your cholesterol.
  7. Keep your blood sugar under control.

We now know that the closer you are to the healthy measures of Life’s Simple 7, the better your health and the less likely your chances of disease. If you want to simplify these seven steps further just remember: Move more, eat better, don’t smoke, and know your numbers.

You should know your BP numbers.

I’ve witnessed too much heart disease as a physician caring for African-American patients, and I’ve seen too much heart disease and stroke in my own family, with dire consequences.

And that’s why I’m so motivated to help people understand Life’s Simple 7.

All components of Life’s Simple 7 matter, and each component can be addressed by your own decision and will to change. Let’s however focus for a moment on hypertension and how diet drives our risk.

The traditional African-American experience often features food and family at the center of our activities. The foods many of us enjoy are not always the greatest hits on the heart-healthy list. And nearly all of them feature generous amounts of sodium.

But, we have to remember that sodium is not our friend; we know that lower sodium intake lowers your chances of disease. The average consumption remains more than 3 grams of sodium per day – approximately 1.5 teaspoons of salt – perhaps even higher for some people.

It’s just too much sodium; stepwise changes to lower intake begin with avoidance of added salt to meals, followed by wise dietary choices. Simple alterations in traditional recipes maintain the taste we enjoy but reduce the risk. Read and compare nutrition labels when you shop to select options that have less sodium per serving.

We know that a healthy diet low in sodium and rich in fruits and vegetables can lower blood pressure by 7-12 millimeters of mercury (or 7-12 points). Even losing 10 pounds can reduce blood pressure or prevent hypertension.

Every patient of mine who has lost 20-25 pounds has seen these benefits as well:

  • lower blood pressure,
  • less medicine to take,
  • less evidence of diabetes, and
  • they look and feel better!

I encourage you to take that first step toward better health.

Let’s summarize:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Be more active. You can work towards this by going for a walk every day.
  • Watch for sodium hidden in packaged and restaurant foods; eat more greens and fewer fries. Most of our salt intake is buried in the food we eat, so it is really important to skip any added salt.
  • Aim for a 2-pound weight loss each month. (Slow and steady is sustainable and can lead to about a 20-pound weight loss in a year); and remember, weight loss is mostly about portion control. Try eating half as much as usual. The weight will disappear!
  • Know your blood pressure.

By taking simple steps and considering your choices every day, you really can live longer and better.
Now, that is something worth celebrating.

Dr.Clyde Yancy, M.D.For this week’s post, we turned the Salty Scoop over to renowned cardiologist Dr. Clyde Yancy, M.D., for some important tips for getting healthier during National Minority Health Month. Yancy is a former American Heart Association president and chief of cardiology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

Read Dr. Yancy's full bio.