African Americans: Honor Your History, Protect Your Heart - Black History Month necessitates serious steps to improve health in our communities

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With all the talk about health care policy in the news, it's easy to forget the things we can do right now to protect our own health. And, regardless of the political season or the potential changes ahead to repeal or replace the ACA, there is a lot African Americans can do to lower their own risk from the biggest health threat facing our community: heart disease. February is both Black History Month and American Heart Month. While the two might seem to have little in common, the fact is that black health care providers have played a key role in advancing our knowledge of the treatment of heart disease throughout history and fought to ensure African Americans have a seat at the table as both health care professionals and patients.

Mary Eliza Mahoney, RN, and Dr. Daniel Hale Williams were the first African American professional nurse and first doctor to perform a successful heart surgery respectively. Beyond a commitment to the health of all their patients, these two leaders paved the way for future generations of black health care professionals whose careers serve as important indicators of the ongoing need to address the largely preventable devastation hypertension and heart disease have caused in African American communities.

How do we honor our ancestors who have fought to protect our heart health and ensured African Americans equal opportunities to become nurse practitioners, nurses, physicians and more?

When it comes to matters of the heart, I’ve compiled a list of four things every African American, indeed all Americans, can do right now to improve their heart health.


African Americans as a demographic have higher rates of tobacco use – particularly cigarette smoking – than almost every other race, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Smoking causes heart disease, stroke and cancer, which are also the three leading causes of death among African Americans, in addition to emphysema, high blood pressure, and other health conditions. It’s encouraging that 74 percent of black smokers say they want to quit, and the good news is that there’s plenty of help available to do it - so ditch the tobacco and set a good example for the youth in our communities.

Protect your heart

I know, it sounds like the same cliché advice every health care professional provides, but with higher risks of stroke, high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes among African Americans, it’s especially important advice. Get more plants (fruits, vegetables and grains) in your diet, and exercise more – at least 20 minutes a day. Indulge from time to time, but ditch the fried foods and sugary snacks. When untimely hunger sets in, drink a big glass of ice water; chances are you’re dehydrated and not actually in need of food fuel. Swap the sodas for carbonated water. The effect is the same, and many taste great, without the calorie and chemical intake.

Follow up

A nurse practitioner or a physician can give more than just advice. Ask for a comprehensive physical exam so you know exactly where you stand. You can then use that information to better track your progress with useful tools like fitness trackers. Put simply, make sure you’re healthy, get those blood tests done, update immunizations and identify any undiagnosed health problems.

Speak up and Speak out, be the example

These are simple solutions to often complex problems, which unfortunately also include disparities in health care access between African Americans and other races. But iconic black Americans like Dr. Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass and, yes, Mary Mahoney have shown time and again that we have a say in our well-being. And if African Americans want to fix problems in health coverage in our communities, we can follow the advice of another iconic black American, to lace up our shoes and do some organizing. At least we’ll be getting our exercise.

There’s so much to honor, cherish and learn from Black History Month, and when it comes to the health of our children and communities, let us also learn from the examples of those who came before us. It’s still a new year and never too late to make a small difference with a big impact.

Carpe diem