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Heart Disease in People of Color: A Patient Guide

Heart Disease in People of Color: A Patient Guide

This article is for people of color who may be at risk for heart disease, or anyone who wants to learn more about heart disease. The goal of this patient education activity is to understand the impact of race/ethnicity on the risk of heart disease.

You will learn about:

  • What heart disease is and how it's linked to a heart attack

  • The impact of race/ethnicity on heart disease

  • Who may be at risk for a heart attack and its symptoms

  • How heart disease may be treated

  • Questions to ask your doctor

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What is Heart Disease?

When you have heart disease, it means that your heart is not getting enough blood and oxygen. One of the ways that this can happen is if there is too much cholesterol in your heart blood vessels (arteries). Your arteries can become narrow, limiting the amount of blood and oxygen that reaches your heart.

Having heart disease can increase your chances of having a heart attack by:

  • Heart damage that happens over time when there is not enough blood and oxygen

  • A blood clot forming in an artery, blocking blood flow to your heart

Cholesterol buildup (in yellow) in a blood vessel is limiting blood flow to the heart.

Who Is at Risk for Heart Disease?

Risk factors, or things that can increase your chances for having heart disease include:

  • High blood pressure

  • High cholesterol

  • Diabetes

  • Race/ethnicity, such as Asian, Black, or non-white Hispanic

  • Age 65 years or older

  • Being overweight or obese

  • Low physical activity

  • Smoking

  • Heart failure

  • Kidney disease

  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD)

  • Previous heart attack, stroke, or heart surgery

  • Heart disease runs in your family

The Impact of Race/Ethnicity on Heart Disease

People of color often have 1 or more risk factors for heart disease, which can increase their risk for having a heart attack. For example, studies have shown that Black people often have higher rates of high blood pressure, Southeast Asian people have higher smoking rates, and Mexican American and Puerto Rican people have higher rates of diabetes when compared to people of other races/ethnicities.

Unfortunately, heart disease frequently may not be diagnosed early in people of color, so they may not be getting the proper care and treatment for heart disease that they may need.

Heart Attack Symptoms

Get medical attention immediately if you have any of these symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Chest pain or pressure that returns after rest, or moves from your chest to your arms, neck, jaw, or back

  • Shortness of breath

  • Pressure or pain in your lower chest, upper abdomen (stomach), or upper back

There are some symptoms that are often overlooked but they may be related to a heart attack such as stomach pain, nausea, a cold sweat, feeling uneasy, trouble sleeping, feeling dizzy or lightheaded, and fainting. Call your doctor if these symptoms continue for a long time.

What Can Happen if You Have Heart Disease?

Heart disease is a serious condition that can get worse over time. People of color with heart disease are at higher risk for complications such as:

  • Heart attack

  • Having to go to the hospital

  • Heart failure

  • Stroke

  • Earlier death compared to someone who doesn't have heart disease

A heart attack can happen suddenly, so it's important to talk with your doctor ahead of time about your risk for a heart attack and treatment for heart disease. Treatment for heart disease can include a heart healthy lifestyle, procedures, and medicine.

Maintaining a Heart Healthy Lifestyle

When you have heart disease, it's important to maintain a heart healthy lifestyle, such as:

  • Eating a healthy diet with more fruits, vegetables, and grains

  • Being physically active and getting at least 20 minutes of exercise 3 to 4 times a week

  • Maintaining a healthy weight with the right portion sizes and healthy snacks

  • Taking medicines as directed for any health conditions you may have, such as high cholesterol

  • Quitting smoking

  • Limiting alcohol intake

Procedures to Help Treat Heart Disease

Some people with heart disease may need a procedure to help improve the blood flow to their heart that may include:

  • Balloon angioplasty: A small balloon is inflated inside the blocked heart artery to open it up

  • Stent placement: A thin mesh tube or "stent" is placed inside a blood vessel in the heart to keep it open. This is done at the same time as angioplasty

  • Bypass surgery: This is a major surgery that connects blood vessels from another part of the body to blood vessels around the blockage in your heart

Medicines to Help Prevent Blood Clots When You Have Heart Disease

To help prevent blood clots, your doctor may recommend certain medicines, including blood thinners such as:

  • Antiplatelets to stop blood clots from forming in your blood vessels, such as aspirin, clopidogrel, prasugrel, or ticagrelor

  • Anticoagulants to help to slow down your body's process of making blood clots and to stop a clot forming in a blood vessel, such as rivaroxaban taken with aspirin

Possible Side Effects of Antiplatelets and Anticoagulants

All medicines can have side effects. Minor bleeding can sometimes happen if you're taking an antiplatelet or anticoagulant medicine. Serious side effects may also happen, but they are not very common.

You should call your doctor if you have:

  • Bruising, pain, swelling, or discomfort

  • Bleeding for a long time from cuts, shaving, or the gums

  • Nosebleeds that are uncommon or don't stop

  • Blood in vomit or urine or when you cough

  • Severe headache, dizziness, fainting, or feeling tired

  • Trouble breathing

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

At your next visit, try asking your doctor these questions:

  • What is my risk for heart disease and a heart attack?

  • What treatments are available and what are their side effects?

  • How can I keep my heart healthy?

  • What are the symptoms of a heart attack and when should I get emergency help?

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You have successfully completed the program Heart Disease in People of Color: A Patient Guide

View Additional Materials on this topic that you may find useful:

Heart Disease

Heart Disease Facts

Know Your Risk for Heart Disease

Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery

Authors and Disclosures

Clinician Reviewer

Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh

Associate Director, Content Development, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Anita A. Galdieri, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh

Associate Medical Education Director, Medscape, LLC.

Disclosure: Asha P. Gupta, PharmD, RPh, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.


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