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Cardiovascular disease, or CVD, ranks No. 1 in causes of death for women overall, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). Yet only 1 in 3 Hispanic women are aware that heart disease kills women more than other causes, including cancer. And Hispanic women often develop heart disease 10 years earlier than their non-Hispanic counterparts, the AHA reports.
“Hispanic women are usually in charge of caring for their entire family,” she said. “They often take care of their parents, their kids and their spouses and leave themselves for last.”
Dr. Montana, who grew up in a Colombian household, says that Hispanic women tend to not seek medical advice until they become sick, avoiding preventive care. Furthermore, she says, they assume that if they feel OK, they are healthy.
“By the time we see them in our office or in an Emergency Room, they’re facing a more serious diagnosis with a more extensive treatment plan,” Dr. Montana explained. If patients take care of their health early on through preventive care with their primary care physician, that healthcare provider can flag potential problems and educate them about reducing their risk for disease.
Nutrition plays another key role, Dr. Montana says.
Hispanic women tend to have a diet rich in carbohydrates. Additionally, American diets consist of a lot of processed foods, containing carbohydrates, sugar, salt and what Dr. Montana calls “artificials,” such as trans fats and other manufactured food additives used to enhance taste, color or shelf life. Mounting evidence suggests that these additives may be contributing to the obesity epidemic that disproportionately affects Hispanic populations in the United States. In fact, according to data released in 2020 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34 percent of Hispanic adults in the U.S. are obese, compared with 30 percent of non-Hispanic white adults.
Obesity among Hispanic populations has also been linked to reduced access to nutritious foods where these individuals live and work, so called “food deserts.” Furthermore, the foods available in these areas are less expensive and therefore, more desirable to larger families, trying to make their household income stretch farther.
“Unfortunately, it’s expensive to eat healthy,” Dr. Montana admitted.
Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome
Obesity is a primary risk factor for metabolic syndrome, which has been shown to increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors that also includes elevated levels of blood sugar and triglycerides, low HDL or “good cholesterol” and hypertension, or high blood pressure, that have been shown to correspond with an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and death. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed a significant prevalence – 40.5 percent – of metabolic syndrome among Hispanics living in the U.S.
These findings substantiate the 15-year Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos, which has found higher rates of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol in the U.S. Hispanic population.
Lack of Exercise
Dr. Montana says another factor that contributes to Hispanic women’s increased risk for cardiovascular disease is lack of exercise.
“Many of my patients think that having an active job is good enough,” she said. “But more important than simply moving around is sustaining an elevated heart rate for at least 30 minutes a day.”
Dr. Montana advises her patients to follow the exercise recommendations of the American Heart Association, which suggests performing a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise each week. That amount of exercise can be broken into 30 minutes a day five times a week or one hour three times a week. “Elevating your heart rate and maintaining it for this sustained period of time helps build cardiovascular endurance,” she said. That increased cardiovascular endurance can improve heart function, lower blood pressure and reduce inflammation, which can lead to atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease.
To reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, Dr. Montana urges Hispanic women to get an annual checkup with their doctor. This will help identify any existing risk factors and track any significant changes in body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar over time that may indicate the presence or development of cardiovascular disease.
“If you take care of yourself and any cardiovascular risks early on, you’re less likely to develop complications down the road,” she said. “Eighty percent of cardiovascular diseases are preventable. It’s important to your family for you be healthy, so you’re around to continue to take care of them.”