Blacks and Heart Disease: Q&A With Dr. Williams

Dr. Marcus L. Williams, president of the Association of Black Cardiologists, tells us why younger Blacks need to start thinking about stroke prevention now.

Posted: 03/21/2011 06:26 PM EDT

Therapists teach James Mann, 70, how to use the controls to bowl with Nintendo's Wii gaming system during physical therapy. Mann is a patient at Wake Med recovering from a stroke.  (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

The recent death of 41-year-old West Coast singer Nate Dogg of stroke complications might have caught many off-guard. But according to Dr. Marcus L. Williams, a leading Black cardiologist, younger Black men—in their forties, thirties and even twenties—are more likely to die from heart complications than any other race.

BET.com talked with Williams, president of the Association of Black Cardiologists, about some of the shocking stats for African-Americans and heart disease and what our community can do to reverse the trend.

BET.com: Why is the stroke mortality rate higher for African Americans than for other races?

Dr. Marcus L. Williams: One of the thoughts is that the prevalence of hypertension [a major risk factor for strokes] has a lot to do with it. African-Americans have the highest rate of hypertension in the world. Forty percent of African-Americans have hypertension, compared to other races that have rates between 28 and 30 percent. High blood pressure is prevalent in all races but is higher in African-Americans. (FAQ: Stroke)

Is the rate different for Black women and Black men?

The stroke record [for African-American women] is very similar to African-American men—maybe slightly lower, but not by much. If you look at overall cardiovascular deaths, the mortality rate is higher for women than it is for men. African-American women may live longer than men … but at the end of the day, the complications that occur are still the same; they are just delayed by 10 years. Many women think they are protected and will often bring their men in to get checked, as opposed to having themselves checked as well.

What role does lifestyle play in African-American heart health?

Lifestyle plays a significant role. A few of the major risk factors that contribute to heart disease include smoking, lack of exercise—at least 30 minutes of cardio is recommended each day—bad [high-salt] diet and high alcohol consumption. Alcohol actually raises blood pressure. For men, no more than two glasses of wine are recommended per day; for women no more than one glass.

Can you discuss the importance of preventative care?

Everybody thinks when they’re young that “this won’t happen to me.” As a cardiologist, I frequently see young people in their twenties, thirties and forties who have major events [like] strokes and heart attacks. While that is less likely to happen for younger people than in older patients, as you can imagine, it’s more tragic because you’re right in the prime of life … right at the point of making money, making a living, being a father or being a mother. You’re right at a point where you, your society, your community needs you most—that’s when you don’t want to break down and have a complication. So, if anything, we should be much more aggressive in preventive methods at this point then when we’re older. If we are going to narrow this disparity gap … it begins not by treating the problem once it occurs, but by preventing the problem in the first place. It starts at a very young age, with developing good habits with how you eat, how you exercise, what you put in your body (like not smoking, moderations in alcohol, controlling weight). All those factors are really critical if we’re going to make a difference. It is important for individuals and the community to be advocates for their own health to understand that they may be at risk and to be asking their physicians and health care providers, and community leaders and politicians, to provide resources to keep people healthy, even in the younger years.

Lastly, looking at other pathologies that affect African-Americans disproportionately—such as diabetes, HIV/AIDS—where do you think heart health ranks?

If you look at our country as a whole, the leading cause of death … is heart disease. There is more death from heart disease than the next four combined—cancer, lung disease, pneumonia, HIV and accidents. Now, go into African-American community and look at the same population. Guess what? The same thing exists.  You’re much more likely to die from cardiovascular complications, such as heart attacks or stroke, heart failure, etc., than HIV, pneumonia, cancers, lung disease, etc. combined. Cardiovascular disease is an equal-opportunity destroyer. It doesn’t matter who you are, what race you are, it is the leading cause of death for every group in this country. The tragedy is that even though that’s true, in certain populations, such as African-Americans and Latinos, it’s disproportionately elevated and high.

Go to the Association of Black Cardiologists’ website to get more stats and information on cardiovascular disease in the Black community.-

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