Preventing heart disease in Black and Hispanic women


In this article:

  • It’s important that minority communities — including Black and Hispanic women — have access to high-quality heart care.

  • While both men and women sometimes experience chest pain before a heart attack, women also may experience other symptoms, such as nausea or indigestion.

  • See your primary care physician every year so you can keep close watch on your risk factors for heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, and most health care providers put a strong emphasis on heart health.

But for members of minority populations, the need for awareness of heart disease symptoms and prevention tips is critical. Fewer than half of Black and Hispanic women realize that heart disease is their No. 1 killer.

There are many reasons for this disparity, says Xiaoyan Huang, M.D., a cardiologist at Providence Heart Clinic – Hollywood in Portland, Oregon. “If a person is from a different country, the diet pattern may be different in their native country, which can contribute to heart issues,” she says. “There may be a language barrier preventing the doctor from getting a complete health history. Or, they may not have the transportation or social support to come for follow-up visits in the clinic or pick up prescriptions from the pharmacy.” 

It’s important for women to learn to recognize the signs of heart disease so they can seek treatment. This is especially true for Black and Hispanic women, for whom genetic factors can play a role, says Lori Tam, M.D., a cardiologist at Providence Heart Clinic – St. Vincent in Portland, Oregon.

“People who are Black may carry a gene that makes them more sensitive to salt, which in turn can affect their blood pressure and put them at risk for heart disease,” Dr. Tam says. “Additionally, the Hispanic population has a higher incidence of diabetes, which also can lead to heart disease.”

Signs and symptoms of heart attack and heart disease

While the most common symptom of a heart attack — chest pain — is the same for both men and women, women are more likely than men to experience these symptoms:

  • Neck, jaw, shoulder or upper back discomfort
  • Sweating
  • Indigestion
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in one or both arms
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue

But a heart attack is not the only sign of heart disease. Women who suffer from high blood pressure and high cholesterol, or who are obese, also are at great risk of having heart problems.

The key, Dr. Huang says, is to establish a relationship with a primary care physician — especially for a woman who is a minority and may not have the same access to health care as other women. “Your primary care physician can help you monitor your health and alert you as to when you should see a cardiologist,” she says.

Preventing or reversing heart disease

Although there isn’t one cause of heart disease, there are risk factors that can make you more likely to develop it, like high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. Some risk factors are determined by your genes and can’t be changed, but others come from how you live your life. In these cases, you can make lifestyle changes to modify or eliminate heart disease risk factors entirely.

To prevent, control and sometimes even reverse heart disease, take these steps to live a heart-healthy lifestyle:

  • Avoid smoking.
  • Be active for at least 30 minutes per day, five days a week.
  • Eat a healthy diet that’s balanced and low in salt.
  • Find healthy ways to cope with stress and support your well-being.
  • Know your numbers, including blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index (BMI).
  • Talk to your doctor about your risk.
  • Limit alcohol.

Our commitment to health equity

At Providence, we want to give every person the chance to live their healthiest life. To do that, we must recognize that long-standing inequities and systemic injustices exist in the world. These inequities have led to health disparities among communities that have been marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, religion or socioeconomic status.

We’re now four years into our five-year, $50 million investment to reduce health disparities and achieve health equity in the communities we serve. The funding has supported communities that were disproportionately affected by COVID-19, grown outreach and education opportunities, and expanded access to care.

It’s part of our mission to:

  • Build, strengthen and maintain relationships with our diverse communities, including people of color, indigenous people, those who identify as LGBTQIA+ and others experiencing inequities, oppression and discrimination.
  • Listen to and partner with our patients, communities and health plan members to understand and actively reduce structural, racial and cultural barriers to health for all.
  • Partner with community organizations to develop data-informed health equity strategies and implement proven practices to resolve the root causes of health disparities.
  • Amplify the voices of all identities impacted by oppression. Advocate to reform the drivers of health, social and economic disparities. And, in keeping with our faith tradition, use our voice to speak out against the structural racism and injustice that has led to a public health crisis.
  • Prevent further harm, humbly welcome discussion and feedback, and foster a culture of continuous learning and transparency.

Providence heart institutes

The Providence health system has three award-winning heart institutes: Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Washington; the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Oregon; and Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Washington.

These heart institutes serve as centers of innovation, delivering world-class health care to tens of thousands of patients each year. In addition to offering the latest advancements in diagnosis, research and treatment, the institutes give patients access to new therapies through clinical research trials, and wellness and prevention programs.

Contributing caregivers

Xiaoyan Huang, M.D., is a cardiologist at Providence Heart Clinic – Hollywood in Portland, Oregon.

Lori Tam, M.D., is a cardiologist at Providence Heart Clinic – St. Vincent in Portland, Oregon.

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Related resources

Closing the gap in diabetes disparities in the Latino community

Life’s essential 8 for your heart health

5 Not-so-obvious signs that you may have a heart problem

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.