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Changing Lifestyles, Changing Habits: Enlarged Heart, High Blood Pressure, and Race

separator Recent news has revealed that African-Americans are two to three times more likely than Caucasians to have an enlarged heart. An enlarged heart is also called left ventricular hypertrophy, or LVH. The condition occurs because the heart’s left pumping chamber has to work harder than normal to pump blood.

This information comes out of the Dallas Heart Study. Each study participant had an extensive medical history taken, blood pressure measured, a cardiac MRI (a test that reveals images of internal parts of the body) to measure the mass of the heart’s left ventricle and an assessment of their body composition. Participants’ socioeconomic situations were also assessed. There had been previous studies showing that African-Americans are at increased risk for LVH, but those studies had not used MRIs to evaluate the heart.

When researchers looked at study participants who had similar body mass, the African-Americans still had higher rates of LVH. In other words, in groups of people who were equally overweight, African-Americans had higher LVH rates, meaning that being overweight itself didn’t account for the increase in LVH.

After looking at all the study data, researchers determined that high blood pressure was the cause of the higher LVH rate in among African-Americans. LVH greatly increases the risk of heart problems such as heart failure.

Why is heart failure serious?
When you have heart failure, your heart can’t work hard enough to pump blood through your body. As the blood flow in your body slows down, fluid can leak into your lungs and other tissue.

Most of the time, people don’t notice heart failure symptoms until the condition has been present for quite a while—sometimes even years. That’s because your heart adjusts to the pumping difficulties by becoming larger, by strengthening its muscle fibers and by contracting more frequently. These adjustments can delay the symptoms, but eventually, the heart cannot keep up, and the symptoms of heart failure appear.

What are the symptoms?
One of the most common signs of heart failure is shortness of breath. This is caused by excess fluid in the lungs. It can happen when you’re at rest or when you’re exercising. Other signs include:

  • Sudden weight gain
  • Swelling in the legs or ankles
  • Swelling or pain in the abdomen
  • Trouble sleeping, and waking up short of breath
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling tired all the time

Controlling high blood pressure is important
Hypertension is a leading cause of heart disease, stroke, heart failure and kidney failure. If you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, it’s important to work aggressively to bring your blood pressure down. If your doctor has prescribed medication for you, take that seriously. Stick with the drugs, and if for any reason you feel like you don’t want to keep taking your pills, be sure to talk with your doctor about it. Don’t ever stop medications on your own.

You can also help control your blood pressure by eating the right diet and by getting regular exercise. For more detailed information about how your food intake affects your blood pressure, read, “How to Eat to Lower Your Blood Pressure.”

If you haven’t seen your doctor recently, there’s no better time to go than now. Have your blood pressure checked, because remember, high blood pressure doesn’t cause symptoms. The sooner you detect the problem, the better your chances of avoiding problems like heart failure in the future.

Read about the heart failure initiative at Catholic Healthcare Partners here.

The American Heart Association; Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association, June 2005; The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
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