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Article: Queen, How’s Your Heart?

Queen, How’s Your Heart?

By: Kathleen Tolbert

When the group chat goes dry no one panics. That is the unspoken understanding that each member is off grinding at her day job, planting seeds for her side hustle, hustling her children to and from extracurricular activities, carving out quality time for her partner, or if she is lucky, taking time to love on herself.

Why is the latter a rare occurrence? Perhaps because of our innate propensity to nurture, often at the expense of filling our own cup. This proverbial cup includes our physical, psychological and mental well-being.

February is the Month of Love and American Heart Month, so I’m asking, “Queen, how is your heart?”

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease and stroke is the No. 1 killer in women, and stroke disproportionately affects African-Americans. Black women have almost two times the risk of stroke than Caucasians, and more likely to die at an earlier age when compared to women of other ethnicities.

For many Black women, particularly those who consider themselves perfectly healthy, perception may not always equal reality. Among Black women 20 years of age and older, 49% have heart diseases. Black women are less likely than white women to be aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death. Only 1 in 5 Black women believes she is personally at risk, and only 36% of Black women know that heart disease is their greatest health risk. Additionally, only 52% of Black women are aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack. Importantly, cardiovascular diseases kill nearly 50,000 African-American women annually.

Heart disease and stroke can affect anyone, but some groups are more likely to have conditions that increase their risk for cardiovascular disease. The correlating factors between these stats and women of color include diet, exercise, accessibility, education, and family history of high blood pressure and heart disease. Black women are also more than twice as likely to maintain single-parent households, and/or need to supplement income monetizing skills or hobbies.

13 years ago (and 15 lbs. ago, LOL), I was a collegiate athlete. Now, I'm a mother, wife and entrepreneur. Over the years, my poor eating habits began to reflect my blood pressure, BMI and energy levels. My vices were sugary snacks and sodium in processed foods. I could high-key eat a burger and shake before a track meet and be fine my entire life! Today, that same burger and shake would mean immediate bloat and breakouts. My mother has high blood pressure and suffered a mild stroke at age 53. Researcher shows that there may be a gene that makes African-Americans much more sensitive to the effects of salt, which in turn increases the risk for developing high blood pressure. In people who have this gene, as little as one extra gram (half a teaspoon) of salt could raise blood pressure by as much as five millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).

How did I make a lifestyle change? Even though I don't consider myself to be a great cook, I had to learn how to curate tasty meals with health ingredients on a reasonable budget. For example, one of my go to meals is vegan spaghetti - chickpea pasta, zucchini, squash and mushrooms. In addition to changing my diet, I also incorporated exercise into my routine by attending group classes. The key to starting my exercise routine was attending workout classes with appointed times. For instance, I started attending Saturday morning and Thursday evening HIIT (high-intensity interval training) classes. Before I was comfortable at the gym, I would jog at the park or track while my daughter played or rode her bike.

Addressing mental health, eradicating the stigma that surrounds it in the Black community and identifying resources to maintain balance are uncharted waters for me as well. Mother + wife + creative = anxiety. I could admit to stress but did not associate insomnia, loss of appetite or mood swings with mental health issues. My personal approach to finding balance was heavily predicated on mindset. Acknowledgement of need and dismissal of feelings of guilt was essential. Mamma can’t pour if she is running on empty.

Releasing myself from the cultural/societal thoughts that I am a superwoman who can do all and needs no help was healing. Practice with me, “do you need help? Yes! Can you….? Not today!

As we proceed to trail blaze in areas of education, entrepreneurship, fashion, health, fitness, and etc. don’t forget to ask your girlfriends in the group chat, and the superwoman in the mirror one important question… "Queen, how is your heart?"

For more information on heart disease in women and prevention, please visit the American Heart Association.