Medical Advice

Know the Heart Disease Risk Factors for Black Americans 

February is both American Heart Month as well as Black History Month. While February is a time to celebrate the past and the present achievements of the Black community in America, it’s also a fitting time to contemplate how to improve heart health. 

While heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, it affects Black populations at a disproportionate rate. Nearly half of all Black Americans have a form of cardiovascular disease and they are 30 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease than other groups. This disproportion holds true in Polk County: In 2021, Black populations were more likely to die from heart diseases at a rate of 173.4 versus white populations at a rate of 154:5. 

What Is My Risk?

There are several risk factors that play a role in the high rates of heart disease among Black Americans. They range from difficulty accessing routine health care, to genetics, to underlying health conditions and behaviors. 

There are certain behaviors such as consuming a high-fat diet, lack of physical activity, smoking, and excessive alcohol use that can increase the risk of heart disease. These behaviors can lead to and worsen the health conditions that are risk factors for heart disease. 

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity are key risk factors for heart disease. Black Americans have higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity than their white counterparts. 

High blood pressure causes your heart to work harder to pump blood. This can strain the heart and over time lead to heart disease. Our livers make most of our cholesterol, but we also obtain it from foods we eat. When too much cholesterol builds up in the arteries, it can lead to a narrowing of the arteries and the blocking of blood flow to and from the heart. Over time, high cholesterol can lead to heart disease. Excess sugar in the blood, or type 2 diabetes, can lead to heart disease. Obesity can also put an extra burden on your heart. 

Genetics can’t be changed. Systemic factors responsible for heart disease disparities require complex solutions that can be impossible for one person to fix. But an individual can reduce their own risk by learning what they can control and by acting on it. 

What Can I Do to Reduce My Risk?

A healthy lifestyle can prevent heart disease as well as reverse some risk factors. 

  • Go from a diet high in saturated fats, trans fats, and salt to a low-sodium diet featuring fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat proteins. Start with eating less processed foods. 
  • Regular physical activity can help with maintaining a healthy weight. The surgeon general recommends two and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week. 
  • Since tobacco use increases the risk of heart conditions, quit smoking. Even secondhand smoke can increase the risk of heart disease in nonsmokers. 
  • Limit alcohol intake. Women are recommended no more than one drink a day while men are recommended no more than two drinks a day. 
  • If you already have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes, take charge of your health. Monitor your blood pressure and cholesterol regularly, take your medications as directed, and listen to your doctor’s recommendations. 

Incorporate these lifestyle changes and watch your progress make a difference. While reflecting on the past, let’s also look to improve the future. 

by Dr. JOY JACKSON, MD, Director of DOH-Polk

About the Author: Dr. Joy Jackson, an internal medicine physician, serves the community as director of the Florida Department of Health in Polk County (DOH-Polk).  For more information about DOH-Polk, visit  Follow DOH-Polk on Twitter at

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