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The sobering facts of heart disease among Black Americans

February 16, 2021

WellSpan cardiologist's losses inspire her work with patients

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Dr. Mallory McClure, WellSpan cardiologist, lost both of her parents to heart disease. She works to help her patients so their families can avoid that experience.

Dr. Mallory McClure, WellSpan cardiologist, lost both of her parents to heart disease. She works to help her patients so their families can avoid that experience.

February is Heart Month, a time for all of us to think about our heart health. 

The topic is particularly important for Black Americans, who have the highest rate of death from heart disease in the country.  

Here are the sobering facts 

While heart disease is the leading cause of death for all Americans, heart disease develops earlier and deaths from heart disease are higher in Black Americans, due in part to risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, according to statistics from the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association. 

Black Americans are not only vulnerable to coronary disease, or hardening of the arteries, but also are susceptible to lethal heart rhythms and sudden death from poorly controlled blood pressure. 

Overall, in 2017, Black Americans were 20 percent more likely to die from heart disease than whites. 

The high blood pressure facts: Black adults are 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure. In fact, the prevalence of high blood pressure in Black Americans is the highest in the world.  

The obesity facts: Among Black Americans age 20 and older, 69 percent of men and 82 percent of women are overweight or obese. 

The diabetes facts: Black adults are 60 percent more likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes by a physician. In 2017, Black Americans were twice as likely to die from diabetes. 

That’s overwhelming. What can I do? 

See a health care provider so you know your risk factors and can learn how to address them. 

Your physician can be your partner in health care,” said Dr. Mallory McClure of WellSpan Cardiology, which has offices in Chambersburg, Waynesboro and Shippensburg. “They can help identify issues and help you take small and large steps to address them.” 

A physician can help you find the right medication and diet to help control high blood pressure and diabetes. 

If you are carrying extra weight, physicians can offer heart-healthy recommendations about diet and exercise. And they can help you to find ways to quit smoking, one of the most important things you can do to boost your heart health. 

What if I need more advanced treatment? 

Physicians have a variety of advanced medical technologies they can use to diagnose and treat heart conditions. 

These range from the basic electrocardiogram, which measures the heart’s electrical activity and provides a wealth of information about the heart; to CT and MRI technologies that can help assess your heart function; to transesophageal echocardiography (TEE), which uses ultrasound waves to take a picture of your heart. 

Physicians also can offer a range of cardiology treatments, including nonsurgical, invasive procedures such as diagnostic cardiac catheterization and the implantation of stents and devices such as pacemakers and implantable cardioverter-defibrillator, a specialized device designed to directly treat heart rhythm problems. 

A Black doctor’s story 

McClure’s mother died unexpectedly at the age of 47 from a sudden lethal heart rhythm, an electrical problem in the heart likely caused by longstanding high blood pressure. McClure was just 15 years old when she lost her mother. That loss is what inspired McClure to become a cardiologist, specializing in the treatment of the heart. 

McClure’s father later died at the age of 66. His death was due to coronary disease, or blockages of the arteries. He had high blood pressure and other risk factors.  

“I know what it’s like to lose loved ones to heart disease,” McClure said. “I want to help my patients, so their families don’t have to go through that devastating experience. I want to walk beside them and help them take control of their heart health. I tell my patients, ‘I’m Team You!’ “ 

McClure said she and her brother know personally what it is like to struggle with the risk factors that lead to heart disease. They have a “terrible” family history, on both sides of their family. 

McClure’s brother is a lifetime athlete who teaches gym, is a basketball coach and is very fit. He was diagnosed with high blood pressure at the age of 19 and has been taking medication ever since. He turned 52 in November and has had no heart-related events. That shows that a good diet, regular exercise and not smoking are powerful weapons in the fight against heart disease, McClure said. 

As for herself, McClure notes, “I have diabetes and hypertension. Diabetes is a very difficult disease to live with but there are lots of good, new drugs that are shown to protect you from stroke, heart attack and death. People need to come to a doctor so they can learn about these things.” 

This message is particularly important to Black patients, who often do not have significant resources or access to health care, and sometimes do not feel listened to by the medical community, McClure said. 

In my walk as a physician, I try to make all patients understand that I am always available, I am always fighting on their behalf, and I am going with them into whatever lies ahead,” she said. “With all of my patients, I sit down, cross my leg, and listen. I try to offer a judgment-free space and I try to offer solutions to problems.” 

Want to learn more about heart disease and treatments for it? Check out these resources on WellSpan.org/HeartMonth.