At 42, ShantaQuilette Carter-Williams never saw herself as someone who had a heart problem. She was active, paid attention to what she ate and felt healthy.
But one day, while on her usual run, she felt her heart flutter and went to the doctor. Six years later, after several trips to the emergency room and misdiagnoses, she had a heart attack and a stroke. That’s when she learned she had cardiovascular disease, which can lead to both. She also was surprised to learn that it runs in her family – her mother had suffered a heart attack at a young age and hadn’t told her about it.
Carter-Williams’ story is not uncommon. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death each year in the US, and it is on the rise. Black Americans are 30% more likely to die of this disease than others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are many reasons for these higher rates, such as family history, implicit bias within the medical community and unequal access to health care.
“Cardiovascular disease is not usually discussed in Black culture,” says Carter-Williams, “but we need to talk about these real issues – it could potentially save lives.”
Today, Carter-Williams is an advocate for women, especially Black women like herself and her mother. Her goal is to help others take charge of their cardiovascular health, so they don’t have to go through what she did.
Carter-Williams offers the following tips:
1) Put your health first
Making your health a priority can go a long way to curb the risk of cardiovascular disease. This can include getting regular check-ups and making lifestyle changes like a heart-healthy diet, daily exercise and reducing stress. For example, Carter-Williams scaled back her hours at work and made time for healthier habits such as exercising more and spending more quality time with her kids. A lower-stress lifestyle gives her more opportunities to teach her kids how to make healthy choices and reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.
2) Talk about your family history
Lasting change starts with education. Black Americans have a disproportionately higher risk of cardiovascular disease, in part due to genetic factors. Carter-Williams encourages everyone, especially Black women, to learn about their family health history and discuss it with their health care teams.
3) Find the right health care team for you
Bias can exist in the health care system, even if it’s not intended. These biases can affect the way patients with cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions are understood and treated. Carter-Williams now looks for doctors who “look like her.” “I need someone who understands me culturally,” she says. “To relate to my doctor in that way makes a difference.” It’s important that she trusts her health care team and feels comfortable talking with them. A good relationship with your doctor – with regular checkups and conversations about cardiovascular disease – can help you manage your risks over the long-term.
4) Take steps to know your cholesterol numbers and manage them
The majority of deaths from cardiovascular disease are a result of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), which can cause stroke, heart attack or even death. ASCVD is caused by high levels of bad cholesterol (LDL-C) in the blood. But there are steps you can take to manage your bad cholesterol and lower your risk. Regular testing can help detect high levels of bad cholesterol in the blood. Talk to your doctor about how often you need to have your cholesterol checked and what you can do to help lower high bad cholesterol and keep it low – including following a healthy diet and adding or adjusting medication, if needed.
5) Take the pledge
There are many more steps you can take to contribute to a healthier future for yourself and others. A great place to start is by taking The Legacy We Lead pledge to help lead a legacy of fewer lives lost to cardiovascular disease and signing up to receive resources that will help you turn your pledge into action.
The Legacy We Lead is a national effort led by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation dedicated to help stop the rise of cardiovascular-related deaths. With stories and inspiration from people like Carter-Williams, the program aims to inspire individuals to make a commitment to create a healthier future.
“My heart matters and so does yours,” says Carter-Williams. “The Legacy We Lead urges everyone to take care of their own heart health and to support others.”
Join the effort to create a healthier future and take the pledge at www.thelegacywelead.com.