Heart disease is the No. 1 killer for all Americans and stroke is the fifth leading cause of death. Hispanics and Latinos, however, face even higher risks of cardiovascular diseases because of high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes.
There is good news in the fact that a few simple lifestyle changes can reduce the chances of getting these diseases. Yet at the same time, Hispanics and Latinos face hurdles when it comes to making those changes and accessing health care, including language barriers, lack of transportation and lack of health insurance.
Those factors can make early diagnoses and management of risks difficult, said Martha L. Daviglus, M.D., Ph.D., a cardiovascular epidemiologist at Northwestern University and University of Illinois and an American Heart Association volunteer.
“Hispanics are more likely to delay care, drop out of treatment when symptoms disappear and avoid visits to the doctor,” Dr. Daviglus said.
High Blood Pressure
Hypertension, the medical term for high blood pressure, is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke among Hispanics. Checking your blood pressure regularly is an important first step for understanding your risks. If it’s high, work with your doctor to create a treatment plan. If it’s normal, be sure to keep checking it a couple times a year.
“If you do these things and are still unable to control your blood pressure, you will need to consult your physician and follow advice regarding medications to help lower blood pressure,” Dr. Daviglus said.
Obesity Is More Prevalent
Carrying extra weight is also a key risk factor for Hispanics. Eighty percent of Mexican-American men and 76 percent of women age 20 and older are overweight or obese.
That’s partly because of cultural influences, Dr. Daviglus said, pointing to popular fatty foods such as refried beans and sour cream.
But environmental factors also play an important role. Both parents work in many Hispanic families, which means it can be hard to find time to prepare healthy meals, Dr. Daviglus said.
“Any family with two working parents may find that $5 can get several hamburgers, but fruits and veggies are more expensive and take more time to prepare,” she said. “It’s an issue of time and money.”
Watching portion size, even for seemingly healthy foods, is important as well.
Getting plenty of exercise is also important. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reported that 65 percent of Mexican-American men and 74 percent of Mexican-American women did not participate in leisure-time physical activity.
Dr. Daviglus said many Hispanics find it difficult to exercise because they work multiple jobs, or they live in areas lacking in safe walking areas or health clubs. In such cases you have to try to be creative to squeeze in 30 minutes of daily physical activity. Learn the American Heart Association's Guidelines for Physical Activity.
“If you can’t walk outside in your neighborhood, perhaps the area where you work is a safer choice,” she said. “Perhaps there is a nearby park with an indoor or outdoor track that can provide a secure area for walking.”
Diabetes Is Growing
An estimated 24 percent of adult Hispanics have diabetes, but as many as half don’t realize it. Untreated, diabetes can lead to serious complications, including cardiovascular disease and renal failure. The prevalence of diagnosed diabetes in Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans between the ages of 24 and 74 is greater than in non-Hispanic whites.
“We’re seeing diabetes even in children and in much higher proportion than other communities,” Dr. Daviglus said. A family history of diabetes can be an important red flag signaling increased risks, but many of the risks for type 2 diabetes can be lowered with lifestyle changes and proper medical care.
“Make every effort to make healthy lifestyle changes,” Dr. Daviglus said. “Family history is important, but even if your parents or other family has diabetes, you can eat right and exercise and not get it.”