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Heart Disease Is Number One Killer of Minority Women

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Minority women are 66 percent less likely than white women to be aware of the risks and symptoms of heart disease.  Even when they are aware, they are less likely to try to reduce their risks or seek treatment, according to a study published in the journal Medical Care.

Yet, minority women generally have a greater number of cardiovascular health risks than any other group.

More than 80 percent of African-American and 70 percent of Hispanic women are overweight or obese, compared to just 50 percent of white women.  A mere 10 percent of minority women have physically active lifestyles.  They also tend to suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes in record numbers.

Dr. Paula Johnson, the chief of women's health for Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said minority women are faced with higher rates of "almost" risk factors as well.

"For example, they tend to have elevated blood pressure that doesn't quite meet the threshold of hypertension and elevated blood sugar that isn't quite diabetes," she said.  "These take a toll on the heart."

Adding to the problem, minority women are more likely to experience risk factors and poor heart health earlier than other women, Johnson said.  

Although a comparatively small percentage of Hispanic women suffer from heart disease -- less than 30 percent -- a University of Rochester study found that they tend to develop symptoms a full decade earlier than white women.

"Language can certainly be a deterrent to diagnosis and treatment because of miscommunications and mistrust of the medical system," said Dr. Malissa Wood, a cardiologist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center.

If there isn't an interpreter to help doctor and patient communicate, Wood said it's virtually guaranteed that information will be lost.  She said she also suspects that many doctors have an unfortunate tendency to label non-English speaking women as hysterical and over-reactors.  As a result, care suffers.

Even when language isn't a barrier, culture can be.  Black and Hispanic women often ignore nutrition advice when the recommended foods are unfamiliar or pricey or when culturally favorite dishes wind up on a "bad" list.  

As for physical activity, many have been raised to view exercise as unladylike.  In some cultures, it's frowned upon to be seen sweating in front of men.

Johnson said she believes that the bias against minority women and their heart health starts at the research level.  Currently, not enough of them are included in studies to help understand their particular requirements and biological idiosyncrasies.

"There needs to be a stepped-up effort in research that includes a focus on minority women in a robust way," she said.  "There's still a significant knowledge gap of their underlying risks and how to decrease those risks."

Wood added that more culturally sensitive programming would also go a long way.  Her ongoing HAPPY Heart study and community outreach program delivers a combination of nutrition, exercise and stress management to minority and lower-income women.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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