What No One Tells Black Women About Heart Disease

The signs and symptoms show up differently in our bodies

Evette Dionne
ZORA
Published in
7 min readMay 19, 2020

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Illustration: Chelsea Charles

I thought I was having an asthma attack when I visited my primary care physician in May 2019. By the time I left that appointment, I’d been referred to a cardiologist to have an echocardiogram (or heart ultrasound) to figure out exactly what was happening. Within two weeks, I’d been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy — better known as heart failure — put on a strict sodium and liquid restriction, and prescribed a cocktail of medications designed to both slow my heart down and make it beat more normally. By the time I was diagnosed, my ejection fraction (EF) — the amount of blood the left ventricle pumps with each contraction — was 16%; an ordinary EF is between 50% and 70%, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). I was 29.

I knew I’d been more short winded than usual, but I’d attributed it to anxiety and lack of consistent physical activity. I was also more tired than I’d ever been, but I thought it was due to juggling a full-time job, two book deadlines, and an iron deficiency. Had a doctor not considered a holistic picture of my symptoms, I likely would’ve died.

That’s seemingly the case for a generation of Black women being diagnosed with heart diseases in their twenties through forties. In a 2019 article published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, researchers Jolaade Kalinowski, Jacquelyn Y. Taylor, and Tanya M. Spruill, note that young and middle-aged Black women have “cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors, develop CVD earlier, and have higher CVD mortality rates.” The AHA has long acknowledged these disparities, noting that 49% of Black women over the age of 20 have heart diseases and that CVD kills nearly 50,000 Black women every year. Many of us have grandparents, parents, and aunties who’ve died from a heart-related condition or disease, but what do we make of these cardiovascular diseases and conditions coming for us at much earlier ages?

“There are genetic, environmental, and biological issues at play,” Kalinowski says. She notes that most health disparities are driven by social factors, including neighborhood stress, occupational stress, financial strain, and caregiving and parenting stress, which are all compounded by…

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Evette Dionne
ZORA
Writer for

Journalist. Critic. Editor-in-chief of Bitch Media. National Book Award-nominated author. Always reading and learning.