Bridging the gap for heart health disparities

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in all women across the United States.

But, for certain groups – risk factors and rates of disease are higher than others – and according to one doctor, awareness and health education may be lacking in some areas.

Dr. Nakela Cook, a cardiologist and chief of staff for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), recently sat down to discuss this topic with Dr. Manny Alvarez, senior managing health editor of

Because February is American Heart Month, the NIH is trying to raise awareness through the Heart Truth campaign to reach certain individuals.

The campaign aims to educate women that the leading cause of death for them is heart disease – and she hopes the campaign will motivate people to take action and reduce their risk.

Cook noted, like so many other diseases, heart disease does not discriminate – and it doesn’t matter what you wear, who you are or where you live. But, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk and help educate those around you.

“African-American and Latino women – we know there is a higher prevalence of being overweight or obese,” Cook said. “Diabetes also has a high rate in these populations, so they do contribute.”

Cook said this is a result of multiple factors: African-Americans tend to have a higher propensity toward development of high blood pressure, but they also, once they have the disease, have worse outcomes from the disease.

And, if you have high blood pressure, that’s important in predicting your long-term risk for cardiovascular disease.

“I think there is a combination of genetic issues, but there’s also some lifestyle issues – things we can really address in order to try to stem the tide against high blood pressure,” Cook said. “Some of that may be being overweight (or) having higher sodium in the diet or not getting the exercise we need on a daily basis in order to reduce the risk.”

Cook said there is a difference in terms of where these women live and the development of heart disease, as well as some cardiovascular risk factors, like high blood pressure.

“We definitely see that in the Southeast, there are higher rates of high blood pressure and higher rates of cardiovascular disease among African Americans,” Cook said. “There are areas in the country that we feel really need intense focus in terms of trying to stem the tide against disease.”

Cook added she realizes they can’t always reach certain populations – especially rural ones – where residents may have a difficult time accessing doctors and addressing personal risk for heart disease, so those places are affected by higher rates of heart disease, too.

“Women really do take the care-taking role for families, and I think it’s important that the whole family really focuses on this together, and that we empower women to be the agents of change – so they can take their families along with them, and their communities too,” she said.

“And if we can find that point, that nexus point, where someone in the family is taking that step to get the family healthy and make the right choices – increasing fruits and vegetables, decreasing salt, choosing lower-fat, lower-cholesterol meals – then I think we can really see almost a network-type of effect of improvement across our communities.”

For more information on the Heart Truth campaign, visit the NIH's website, and check it out on Facebook.