Commentary: Black women should ‘walk the walk’ to survive heart disease

Commentary: Black women should ‘walk the walk’ to survive heart disease
November 05
00:00 2015

Cynthia Brown Guest Columnist

It is a known fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death; the number one killer of women, particularly African-American women. Thanks to several national efforts, more than half of all women now know that heart disease is the leading cause of death.

However, while heart disease is a major health threat to African-American women, only one third (36 percent) of African-American women even realizes this fact. Each year close to 400,000 women have heart attacks; that’s one per minute. To put this in context, think about it this way; while you are reading this article, five of your African-American sisters may have a heart attack.

Even more bad news, African-American women are less likely to survive a heart attack than all other groups. According to the American Heart Association, 48.9 percent of non-Hispanic black women age 20 and older have heart disease. As I take a moment to reflect, the familiar faces of vibrant women pass through my mind. … Jan, age 35, died of a heart attack, while Debra aged 56 died suddenly from complications of heart disease, and Joan, age 62, died as a result of a massive stroke … all African-American women, all died of heart disease; all someone’s mother, sister, wife or friend.

As African-American women, we are 69 percent more likely to have heart disease and heart attacks and twice as likely to not understand the health risks. As we age, risk factors for heart disease increase, in part, due to the decreased production of estrogen.

However, largely in part because of risk factors that are preventable. The question of “why?” suddenly screams out to be answered. While the answer is complicated, this we know: African-American women are more likely to be physically inactive, more likely to be obese, and more likely to have poor diets that contribute to heart disease. Statistics like these led to the development of the STEPS to a Healthier Heart Program. STEPS stands for “Sisters Together Empowered for Prevention and Success” and is a heart disease educational intervention targeting African-American women. Our research study, based on a 12-week intervention consisting of weekly exercise and “heart smart” seminars related to nutrition, heart disease risk factors and prevention, indicated that by teaching women to take small steps and continue their healthier lifestyle journey can help women prevent heart disease for themselves and their families.

That’s the GOOD NEWS! These trends can be reversed! The American Heart Association says that “80 percent of heart disease and stroke can be prevented.” How? You might ask. Simply by taking small “steps.” Once you have begun, then take another, then another. It is said that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” By beginning with small steps such as going meatless one day, reducing the amount of sugary drinks, adding 10 minutes of walking a day, taking your medication if you have high blood pressure, etc.( the list is almost endless), you can begin your journey to a healthier heart.

This journey is not taken alone. The path is paved with advocacy and research. The American Heart Association is the largest voluntary health organization dedicated to defeating heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases. Its mission is to build healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

While research projects like STEPS are important, they also point to the need to fund the vital research and programming that address heart disease and stroke in women and minorities.

We were very excited to take part in this year’s Tanglewood Heart & Stroke Walk, locally sponsored by Wake Forest Baptist Health. It was designed to promote physical activity and heart-healthy living in a fun environment. In total, 4,500 people attended the walk, raising $450,000 for heart disease and stroke research and prevention education in our community.

Closing the gap on heart disease requires proactive steps on all fronts, especially from those who are affected the most. The bottom line is that regardless of our age, as African-American women, we must make the decision to take STEPS to a healthier heart. It’s time to stop “talking the talk” and begin “walking the walk.” And not just one day – but walking just 30 minutes every day can make all the difference in your heart health.


Cynthia Williams Brown is chair of Health, Physical Education and Sport Studies and associate professor at Winston-Salem State University. She is also principal investigator of the STEPS to a Healthier Heart Project.

For more information on the results of the 2015 Tanglewood Heart & Stroke Walk, contact or visit

For more information on the STEPS project, contact Marian Anderson-Booker at 336-750- 8915.



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