While the country overall has seen a nearly 25% decline in deaths from heart attacks and strokes since 1999, Mississippi hasn’t fared as well as the national average.
“We lag behind the national rates by a good bit,” says Dr. Daniel Jones, national president of American Heart Association (AHA) and vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC). “and particularly if you look at our rates by race. African Americans in Mississippi, both men and women, have not had declines over these past few years. That trend has been there in the past 20 years for African Americans in Mississippi. And that is an alarming issue.”
One factor may be that both African Americans and women tend to recognize symptoms of heart attack and stroke slower and respond slower. Studies suggest some healthcare providers may be less alert to thinking about heart attack and strokes in women and African Americans.
A national study funded by the National Center for Nursing Research found that early warning signs of heart attacks in minority and Caucasian women are generally symptoms not specifically associated with heart disease. The most frequent symptom reported was unusual fatigue. Other common symptoms included sleep disturbance, intermittent anxiety, shortness of breath, frequent indigestion, heart racing, a change in thinking or remembering in the month or so prior to their attack, vision problems including blurring and small incidents of temporary blindness and loss of appetite.
Jones says regardless of sex or race, anyone with symptoms like chest pain, a change in speech or paralysis in extremities needs to get immediate medical attention. The key is to seek evaluation if you aren’t feeling well. Don’t ignore symptoms.
“Fatigue and shortness of breath can be signs of heart disease in women and men, but women in particular need to pay attention to those kinds of symptoms,” Jones says.
The reasons why heart disease is a bigger problem in the African American population isn’t fully understand — more research is needed. A lot of that research is being done in Mississippi. There is a large heart National Institute of Health study underway, the Jackson Heart Studies, involving UMC, Jackson State University and Tougaloo College.
“In that study, the investigators are seeking to understand the causes of race-based healthcare disparities in cardiovascular disease,” Jones says. “Access to good healthcare is important. Particularly in areas like our Mississippi Delta, which have large concentrations of African American patients, we need to make sure we have strategies in place to have access to healthcare there as good as anywhere in the country.”
Jones says it is important to eliminate the striking disparities in care for women and minority populations. The AHA is very concerned that the advances that have been seen for the population as a whole are not being enjoyed by all Americans.
“We need more research to help us find and understand some of the differences in the best treatments for each individual, but we also need a healthcare system that provides affordable, adequate, quality healthcare that is accessible for all,” Jones says. “These disparities are unacceptable. We are actively seeking ways to better address these issues so that we can ensure that every person has the appropriate care they need to live a healthier, longer life.”
African Americans can get help to reduce their stroke risk through Power To End Stroke, an educational campaign of the American Stroke Association, a division of the AHA. The association encourages African Americans to sign a pledge to make a commitment to reduce their stroke risk. Once signing the stroke pledge, they may become Power To End Stroke ambassadors, who help spread the messages about stroke.
Power To End Stroke tools include brochures, a risk assessment quiz, Family Reunion Toolkit, Power Sunday Church Toolkit and Healthy Soul Food Recipes cookbook. The Family Reunion Toolkit helps spread stroke awareness to family members, while the Power Sunday Church Toolkit focuses more on members of the community. The 46 Healthy Soul Food Recipes Cookbook contains healthy variations to traditional soul food recipes.
“In the Jackson metropolitan area, hundreds of African Americans will have a stroke this year, and most don’t know that they are at risk,” says Dr. Angela Chandler, assistant professor of pediatric and adult neurology at UMC. “African Americans are at particularly high risk for stroke because of increased risks of hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes. Other risk factors — such as obesity, smoking and physical inactivity — also increase the risk of stroke.”
The Power To End Stroke campaign is designed to teach people how to reduce these and other stroke risks. It is also important to learn how to recognize five simple signs of stroke and to understand that getting to the hospital immediately can potentially reduce the pain, suffering and disability from stroke.
Yolanda King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, began serving as a Power to End Stroke ambassador shortly after her mother suffered a stroke.
“No civil rights, no voting rights, no equal rights, no immigration rights are worth fighting for if we are dying from heart disease and stroke,” King says.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.