African Americans and Heart Disease: What You Need to Know

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And it can be especially bad news for African Americans. Compared to Caucasians, African Americans may:

  • Have more severe high blood pressure
  • Develop high blood pressure at a younger age
  • Be more likely to experience sudden cardiac arrest*

Luckily, there are many ways to help protect your heart.

What puts someone at risk?

Some risk factors for heart disease can be controlled. Others can’t. For example, two risk factors for heart disease that you can’t control are:

  • Getting older
  • Having a family history of heart disease

But you may be able to do something about other risk factors, including:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Lack of exercise

Having any one of these risk factors can increase the chance that you’ll get heart disease. And when they go together, that can raise the risk even more.

African Americans have a higher risk than Caucasians for high blood pressure and diabetes.** But you may not know you have either condition. So it’s important to ask your doctor if you should be tested.

What can I do to lower my risk?

Your lifestyle choices can have a direct impact on your health. Making some changes may help keep your heart healthy:

  • Don’t use tobacco. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your health. Talk with your doctor if you need help to quit.
  • Lose some weight if you need to. Dropping just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight could make a big difference in your heart health.***
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Choose fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats. Limit saturated and trans fats, added sugars and sodium. Ask your doctor about the DASH diet for lowering high blood pressure.
  • Get moving. Being active may help lower your blood pressure, cut your risk for diabetes and help control your weight. Most healthy adults should aim for at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week. For safety’s sake, talk with your doctor before significantly increasing your activity level.

If you have a health condition — such as high blood pressure or diabetes — lifestyle changes can still be important. But they may not be enough. Work with your doctor to get the best care for your condition. And remember to:

  • Take your medicine just as prescribed. It may not work if you skip doses.
  • Go to your follow-up visits. Tell your doctor if you have any new symptoms, side effects or changes in your health.
  • Learn about your condition. Know your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol numbers. And ask your doctor what your goals should be.

What to do next

See what checkups and screenings may be recommended for you. Look up guidelines at


*Source: American Heart Association

**Sources: American Diabetes Association; American Heart Association

***Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be nor should be construed as medical or other advice. Talk to an appropriate health care professional to determine what may be right for you.

Last reviewed June 2017