Black people in the United States have lower rates of heart disease than white people. But they tend to develop it earlier and have worse outcomes. Socioeconomic factors and higher rates of underlying conditions play a role in this disparity.
Is Heart Disease More Common in African Americans?
“Heart disease” is an umbrella term for a wide range of conditions that affect your cardiovascular system. It’s the leading cause of death in the United StatesTrusted Source and across the worldTrusted Source.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, heart disease-related deaths have decreased since 1999. Still, Black people in the United States are more likely to experience complications or die from heart disease than people of other racial backgrounds.
Black people also tend to develop symptoms of heart disease at an earlier age than people of other races. So, while Black people in the United States tend to have lower rates of heart disease overall than white people, it may pose a greater risk to their health.
There are many reasons for this disparity, and several of them are connected. This article takes a deeper look at some of those reasons and what African Americans can do to prevent or manage heart disease.
The most common type of heart disease in the United States is coronary artery disease (CAD), also called coronary heart disease. It’s when blockages in your artery affect blood flow to your heart. Although heart disease includes several types, people often use “heart disease” to mean CAD.
According to the Office of Minority Health, about 5.4% of non-Hispanic Black adults in the United States have CAD. That’s slightly lower than the rate among non-Hispanic white adults (5.8%).
But the story is much different when you look at deaths from heart disease. Non-Hispanic Black adults are 26% more likely to die from heart disease than white adults. According to the CDCTrusted Source, they’re more than twice as likely to die than non-Hispanic Asian or Pacific Islander adults.
The disparity is greatest when looking at people under the age of 50. Heart disease is more likely to affect older people. But Black adults under 50 are twiceTrusted Source as likely to die from heart disease as their white peers.
There’s no one reason Black people in the United States have worse outcomes from heart disease. Instead, there’s a complex web of factors that often influence each other. Here are some of the key factors:
Perhaps one of the most direct reasons for poorer outcomes among African Americans is the higher rate of underlying conditions that contribute to heart disease. These include:
Your genes may contribute to your risk of heart disease. Some genetic lipid disorders are more common among African Americans. These can increase your risk of heart disease.
While more research is needed, studiesTrusted Source have identified genes that may be more common in Black populations that can affect your:
Several lifestyle factors that contribute to heart disease are more common among African Americans. They include:
Black people in the United States face several barriers to quality healthcare. These include:
Social determinants of health
Many nonmedical factors can influence your health outcomes. These are known as social determinants of health. They can influence your ability to manage underlying conditions or make positive lifestyle and dietary changes.
Examples includeTrusted Source:
But even African Americans with higher education and more resources are still subject to poorer outcomesTrusted Source when it comes to heart disease. This underscores the impact of systemic racism and the complex set of factors at play.
CAD is the most common type of heart disease that affects African Americans. But there are other types you may encounter. They include:
ArrhythmiaArrhythmia is an irregular heart rhythm. There are several types of arrhythmias. One of the most common is atrial fibrillation (AFib).
African Americans are much less likely to have AFib than white Americans but are more likelyTrusted Sourceto experience complications.
AtherosclerosisAtherosclerosis is the buildup of plaque in your arteries, causing them to narrow. It often leads to CAD. Some research suggests that young Black people may be at higher risk than some other groups.
CardiomyopathyCardiomyopathy causes your heart muscles to harden or weaken. While there are many types, dilated cardiomyopathy seems to disproportionately affectTrusted Source African Americans: They are twice as likely to develop it and up to five times as likely to die from it. The reasons for this are unclear.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is the most common inherited heart condition. Black people tend to have symptoms earlier in lifeTrusted Source and are less likely to receive appropriate treatment.
Recent research also discovered a gene common in African Americans that could cause amyloid cardiomyopathy, leading to heart failure.
Congenital heart diseaseSome people are born with structural irregularities in their hearts. Black people are 31%Trusted Source more likely to die from congenital heart disease than white people.
Heart valve disordersAfrican Americans have higher rates than white Americans of risk factors for heart valve disorders. But according to the Association of Black Cardiologists, African Americans are 54% less likely to be offered treatment than white people. They’re also 33% less likely to accept treatment when offered.
Peripheral arterial diseasePeripheral arterial disease (PAD) isn’t a heart disease, but it is a cardiovascular disease. Instead of the arteries in your heart being blocked, it’s the arteries in your legs. This can also lead to events like heart attack or stroke.
African Americans have a greater lifetime riskTrusted Source of PAD than other racial groups.
You can take several steps to lower your chances of developing heart disease.
Know your risk and family historyHaving a family member with heart disease increases your risk of developing it. It helps to know your family history, if possible, and to take precautions early. It also helps to be aware of risk factors you have or that also run in your family.
ScreeningSeveral tools are available to help you detect heart disease early. Consider the following:
Look for warning signsSymptoms to look out for include:150 minutes of moderate activity each week. If you live in an area where that’s difficult, try finding ways to exercise at home.
Manage your weight and dietExcess weight increases your risk of developing heart disease and experiencing complications. Regular activity will help you maintain a moderate weight.
But a heart-healthy diet is also a positive step. Limiting your salt intake can help reduce your blood pressure and can have a big impact.
Take your medicationsIt’s important to manage underlying conditions, too. That means taking medications as prescribed and checking your blood sugar levels when you need to.
Big-picture changesWhile there’s much you can do on your own, we still need to work toward some systemic changes. We can’t address issues of access and social determinants of health on our own.
We can (and should) advocate for policy changes that increase access to care, nutritious food, and safe spaces for activityTrusted Source. Experts also promote the efforts of community partnershipsTrusted Source that aim to eliminate barriers, like providing transportation to older adults or free clinics.
If you have some form of heart disease, your treatment will depend on the specific type. Treatment options are usually the same regardless of race, but there are a few exceptions.
Earlier researchTrusted Source suggested that African Americans may have a different reaction to certain types of common heart medications, with some experts recommending alternative treatments. However, these studies had such a small sample size of African Americans, it was unclear whether a different treatment approach was warranted.
New research suggests that race-based treatment guidelines have not improved outcomes in the Black community. Researchers suggest an individualized approach to treatment is more effective than following guidelines based on race.
More important factors to consider include:
Heart disease is a major concern for many Americans, especially African Americans. While outcomes for white people have improved a lot over the last few decades, Black people have not seen the same improvements.
Given the disparities, it’s important for African Americans to manage any risk factors within their control. This includes managing your blood pressure, treating diabetes, and maintaining a moderate weight.
Even if you do develop heart disease, it’s still possible to live a long and healthy life. Many of the steps you take to prevent heart disease can help you manage the condition.