Let’s screen every woman for heart health risks

On the heels of Black History Month and embarking upon Women’s History Month this March, it is an important time to reflect on the disproportionate toll that heart disease takes on those who have been underserved by our healthcare system, particularly African American women. Decades have come and gone, healthcare and science have become more effective and sophisticated, yet outcomes for black women have hardly budged.

Because we are not accustomed to thinking of women as at high risk for heart disease, we often do not look for the disease soon enough.  Yet heart disease is the primary killer of American women, accounting for one in four deaths every year – more than all forms of cancer combined.

Among African American women, the numbers are even more startling.

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According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the age-adjusted death rate for heart disease among African American women was 195.4 per 100,000, compared to 142.1 for non-Hispanic white women. Among black women 20 years of age and over, 44.3 per 100,000 had high blood pressure – a major risk factor for heart attacks and strokes – compared to 28.1 for non-Hispanic white women.

Recognizing the risks for heart disease is particularly important because heart disease can be prevented. In fact, with early detection and a healthier lifestyle, women can potentially reduce their risk of heart disease by as much as 82 percent.

In general, many women turn to their OB/GYN, the local pharmacy-based clinic or a community health center for their primary care. Indeed, studies show that as many as 56 percent of low-income, black or Hispanic women see only their OB/GYN on an annual basis. But two-thirds of these women say they are not being approached by the OB/GYN about heart disease.

This has led to a predictable result: Far too few of our hearts are being evaluated before it’s too late.

We can see the consequences here in Washington, D.C. where, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women and men are dying at a higher rate from preventable heart attacks and strokes than in any of the 50 states.

With the necessary information, incentives and support, every woman can improve her heart health. But our healthcare system needs to provide every woman with the information she needs to make smart choices.

After all, every woman – whatever her income, heritage or residency – deserves the opportunity to be heart-healthy. Let’s encourage healthcare providers – when it comes to heart disease – to start meeting women where they are.

Norton has represented the District of Columbia since 1991. She sits on the Oversight and Government and the Transportation committees.