According the American Heart Association, nearly 50,000 Black women will die this year of cardiovascular disease. Despite all the talk about prevention and warning signs, more Black young women under 50 are suffering from heart attacks at greater numbers than ever before.
In fact, according to Heart Association (AHA) data, nearly 50 percent of all Black women, age 20 and over are living with heart disease and are at risk for heart attacks and strokes. AHA says that women under 50 also have more severe heart attacks, and are more likely to die from them than their male counterparts.
Ivy Tagger, Ph.D., was fortunate enough to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack when she was just 48 in 2015. “I got very hot and I thought I was having my first hot flashes,” she tells NewsOne. But also had an overall feeling of malaise.
“The middle of my chest hurt, I had pain going down my right arm and pain in my back on the left side,” Tagger says. At one point, she was having difficulty walking.
As fate would have it, Tagger had recently updated her CPR certification a day before having a heart attack. “I recognized the signs of a heart attack and called emergency services,” she says. “I am glad I have been CPR certified for years. Otherwise I may not have taken the appropriate actions.
“At first they didn’t think I was having a heart attack based on my age, activity level and lifestyle,” Tagger says. “But it is important that Black women, insist that they get all the tests to rule out a heart attack.” Once it was determined that Tagger was indeed having a heart attack, the medical team performed a procedure to repair a Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD) and gave her two stents to keep her arteries open.
Tagger is lucky. Medical experts say most people miss the warning signs that present before an actual heart attack. The symptoms also tend to present differently in women than in men.
Don’t Ignore Your Body
According to the American Heart Association, young women should be aware of:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
- As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.
Tagger says, “at first I thought this heart attack just came out of nowhere, but as I took a more introspective look weeks later, I realized there were many signs.” She says she was extremely tired and had days when she had to force herself out of bed. “No matter how much rest I got, I was still tired,” Tagger says.
As a person who stays physically active, she says got concerned when “exercising was more difficult due to being so tired.” I felt overall physically “bad.” Simple tasks like walking up steps or walking from the parking ramp to her building at work became a chore.
Don’t Discount Stress
Even though she says she was very conscious of her lifestyle and stayed vigilant about exercise and diet, Tagger faced one risk that many Black women deal with—stress. Tagger says, “I consistently overextended myself and stayed too busy in my personal, professional and social life.
“I feel I was working at such a high-speed intensity that I didn’t even realize what it was or how it felt to just slow down and relax,” she continues. “But God really has a way of helping you make changes whether you want to or not. So I have scaled back immensely on accepting many unnecessary responsibilities in all aspects of my life.I am prioritizing my health and family first.”
While Tagger has been a vegetarian for a decade, as a part of her post-heart attack care, she continues to refine her diet. ”Now I am looking even closer at my food choices ensuring that I am eating fresh, mostly organic vegetables daily,” she says. “There are foods that are good for heart and arteries that I am also trying to consistently include in my diet.”
She also loves to exercise. “But after having a heart attack, I have to be very careful to not over strain my heart muscle. I work out at a nice steady pace, as opposed to intense strenuous competitive exercise.”
She does yoga, walks, enjoys hula hooping, light weight-lifting, and use cardio machines at the health club. Tagger, who is now 50, still has plans to complete a non-competitive triathlon. “I was training for one before having a heart attack,” she recalls.
Manage Your Risks Now
No matter what age, it is important for Black women to understand their personal risk factors and manage them.
- Know and manage your numbers. Regularly monitor your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.
- Manage your weight. According to the National Institutes of Health, losing just 10 percent of your weight can reduce your risks for a heart attack or stroke.
- Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Prepare more foods at home. Cut back on sugary drinks and junk food. Watch your portions.
- Don’t smoke. If you have never smoked, don’ t start. If you are a smoker, quit.
- Get moving. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise can reduce your risks significantly.
- Get a grip on your stress. Everybody has it. The key is to find tools like yoga and meditation to help you find your centered place.