Spiritual wellness and heart health go together
By Shea Tuttle
The Spirit of the Heart wellness campaign is coming to Richmond. An initiative of the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC), price Spirit of the Heart will include free events this Saturday and Sunday, May 2 and 3.
On Saturday, ABC will host a family-friendly community health fair, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the RichmondConvention Center. Organizations like the VCU Pauley Heart Center, Whole Foods, and the American Heart Association will be present, and the day will include free health screenings, cooking demonstrations, Zumba and yoga instruction, and a wealth of information on cardiovascular health.
Sunday, ABC is going to church. At First African Baptist Church on Hanes Avenue, a message from the pulpit will emphasize the importance of spiritual wellness and heart health, as well as the connection between the two. The service will begin at 11 a.m.
I spoke with Dr. Phillip Duncan, a cardiologist based in Chester, Virginia, and the immediate past board chairman of ABC. “Spirit of the Heart is an awareness-raising program,” he told me. “It goes from city to city to share information with policymakers, clergy, public officials, and the public. Knowledge is power.”
According to Duncan, the connection between spirituality and heart health is key. “Church and other faith-based institutions comprise a significant part of our lives,” he said. “Our church communities form our opinions and increase our awareness of issues. A strong spiritual focus improves our overall health and well-being.”
Dr. Duncan said he says this to clergy, often those under his care, on a regular basis. “Pastors have far more opportunities to have impact on people’s health than I do,” he said. “I see my patients every two, three, six months; sometimes, just once a year.” Clergy, on the other hand, have the opportunity to be in touch with congregants week to week and even day to day.
This is a particularly important connection in the African American community, Duncan says, both because African Americans tend to be deeply involved in churches, and because rates of heart disease and stroke in the African American community are disproportionately high.
The work of the ABC focuses heavily on these disparities. The ABC mission statement reads, “To promote the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, including stroke, in Blacks and other minorities and to achieve health equity for all through the elimination of disparities.”
Dr. Duncan gave me some examples of these disparities. “Heart disease and heart failure are equal opportunity diseases,” he said, and yet, the incidence and outcomes for those diseases are graver for African Americans. At age 40, an American’s lifetime risk of heart disease is one in five, but for African Americans, it’s twice that high. On average, heart failure manifests itself ten years earlier in African Americans than in Caucasian Americans. In the 18-35 year-old age group, African Americans have ten times the heart failure risk of Caucasian Americans. And though postpartum cardiomyopathy is a rare pregnancy-related type of heart failure (only one in 4000 live births), the risk to African American women is sixteen times that to Caucasian American women.
Dr. Duncan believes that we need to address this disparity from many directions. “We need to look at the biology of the disease,” he said. “We need to look at the causes of heart disease–heart attack, high blood pressure, pregnancy, genetics. We need more funding for research, and we need a dedicated workforce.”
But at least as important, he stresses, is raising awareness and increasing information in the general public. Dr. Duncan offered the following tips for preventing, recognizing, and treating heart disease:
- It’s never too early to think about heart health. “Now we look at elementary and preschool- aged children,” Duncan said, “because that’s where you sow the seeds. When we see a two-year-old drinking Coca-Cola, that’s where it starts. When we see a five-year-old eating half a pizza, that’s sowing the seeds for hypertension and heart failure.” Studies have shown that people in their early 20s with slight elevations in blood pressure–even within the range of what we call “normal”–are more likely to develop heart failure later in life. So don’t wait; start thinking about it now.
- Know the warning signs, and pay attention to your symptoms. Concerning symptoms include easy fatigue, swelling of legs, nighttime cough, and chest pain. Talk with your doctor about any of these symptoms.
- Seek out regular, preventative care from a doctor you trust. Many instances of heart disease are asymptomatic, Duncan said, so it’s crucial to have regular, preventative checkups even when you feel healthy. At these visits, your doctor should check your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels. Early detection of elevated levels can help you to change the pattern before it develops into something much worse.
- Stay active, and pay special attention to your energy level. “Activity is absolutely key,” said Duncan. “Be as active as you possibly can.” It’s good for you in all sorts of ways, reducing your risk of diabetes, modulating your blood pressure, and burning calories. “But it’s also a great early warning system,” he said. Easy fatigue is one of the earliest symptoms of heart disease, and people usually explain it away. If you aren’t active, you might not even notice it, and by the time you are noticing symptoms at rest, the disease is pretty advanced. Stay active to improve your health, but also stay active so you’ll know if something changes.
- Kick the smoking habit. With all we know about the connections between smoking and cancers, and smoking and heart disease, Duncan emphasizes, “There’s no reason to smoke.”
- Watch your total calories. “There are lots of fancy ways to track what you eat,” Duncan said, “but what matters most is your total caloric intake.” The main problem to avoid is overall caloric excess.
- Make moderation your practice. The best way to watch your saturated fats and transfats, Duncan said, is to moderate them. “Your body can tolerate them in small amounts. The problem comes when we overwhelm our bodies with fast foods and processed foods on a regular basis.”
- Make your emotional, spiritual, and psychological health a priority. Here, Duncan referred to the ABC’s publication, “7 Steps to a Healthy Heart” in which the first step is “Be Spiritually Active.” Attend a place of worship. Connect with your community. Engage in work that matters. Strive for positive relationships with friends and relatives. Get a dog. Laugh.
To learn more about how to reduce the risk and improve the outcomes of heart disease for yourself and your loved ones, attend the Spirit of the Heart this weekend. You can also explore the many resources at the Association of Black Cardiologists website, www.abcardio.org.