In late March, Queen Latifah’s mother, Rita Owens, passed away following a 14-year battle with heart failure. Rita’s death was certainly a shock to many, as well as a wake-up call when it comes to paying attention to heart health. And for Black women, it needs to be of great concern. One in three women will die from heart disease, as it is the leading cause of death of women in the United States. And for Black women, sadly, heart disease is more prevalent in comparison to white women.
“The problem is the underestimation,” says Jennifer Mieres, M.D., co-author of Heart Smart for Women and one of the leading experts in the field of cardiovascular disease in women. “Only one in five or 20 percent of African-American women who are at risk for heart disease believe they are at personal risk or are even aware that they’re at risk for heart disease.”
But the good news, according to Mieres, is that 80 percent of cases of heart disease can be prevented. She says making small but substantial changes in your lifestyle over a span of six weeks can set in place permanent changes toward a healthier heart and outcome. She calls it the “Six S.T.E.P.S. in Six Weeks” plan.
For the first week, the first step is choosing to consume a healthier diet. That means stocking your kitchen with better choices that will foster healthy heart living.
“Making your plate more colorful is really a key component,” Mieres says. “A colorful plate will be one with lots of fruits and vegetables, hardly fried foods. Changing your diet or your eating habits so that you cut down on salts, you cut down on fried foods and you include more sort of plant-based foods is definitely important in decreasing and controlling your blood pressure as well as controlling diabetes, which is also prevalent in African-American women.”
In the second week, the priority is to be more active. Get up and start moving every day.
“If you could manage a minimum of 150 minutes of activity every week, that is one key step to putting you on the road to heart healthy living,” she says. “It will decrease your chances of heart attack and stroke.”
And that doesn’t mean you have to be in the gym. Mieres recommends integrating more activity into your schedule by getting it in 10-minute spurts of anything that gets you on your feet.
“From the time you get up to the time you go to sleep, if you could fit in bits and pieces of 10 minutes of activity, walking, it’s the simplest thing,” she said. “Walking, jogging, swimming, dancing, going to the gym, some sort of activity.”
The third week is for eating healthy when at home and when dining out. And when it comes to dining out, it can be hard to eat clean when those around you are set on indulging. That leads us to week four’s priority, which is partnering with your doctor, family and friends to make lasting changes for your heart health.
Dr. Mieres says that working with a doctor to customize a heart health plan that works for you based on your health history (risks can be increased if you had pregnancy-related complications like preeclampsia, gestational hypertension or diabetes) is key. From there, you can work with your family and partner with friends.
“Since eighty percent of heart disease can be prevented and a lot of it depends on lifestyle changes such as choosing to move and changing your diet, it should become a family affair,” she says. “There’s strength in making it a family affair.”
“And at work, you know, or whatever industry you’re in, partner with a friend or colleague,” she added. “Say, ‘Let’s do 10 minutes as a minimum of activity and go for a walk at lunchtime.’ It’s really important.”
Week five is about tackling stress, which can be done by increasing the number of hours you sleep, if nothing else.
“By not sleeping for over six hours or so, you are just in constant stress,” she said. “Your cells and your heart and all the parts of the body are exposed to cortisol, which means that your blood pressure is higher. And that in and of itself destroys the lining of the arteries.”
Increasing our amounts of sleep and making an effort to control stress, or at least our body’s reaction to it, can go a long way. And there are many methods you can find in the palm of your hand.
“Things like meditation, taking time to breathe, there are all of these apps and different tools now to help us, even if it’s for five minutes to take time, to do deep breathing, to do a little bit of meditation,” she said. “All of those methodologies have been shown to help decrease the stressful moments.”
And the last week, week six, encourages you to put all of these practices together. Integrate them slowly but surely into your regimen. As Dr. Mieres says, by knowing the risks, controlling the risk factors and making simple lifestyle changes, we can save our lives. Make your heart health a priority. ASAP.