by Dr. Bernadette Anderson

In February, as the streets blush with red, it’s not just in celebration of love on Valentine’s Day but to draw attention to a startling statistic — every 33 seconds, a heartbeat falls silent in the United States, quieted by the grip of heart disease. Amid this month’s symphony of crimson awareness, a disconcerting note lingers. Matters of the heart affect men and women alike, with heart disease holding the grim distinction of being the leading cause of death for both genders.

As an African-American female physician, I’ve witnessed a harsh truth that reverberates louder for women of color –- we are less likely to receive a swift diagnosis and assertive treatment for heart disease. This unsettling revelation, coupled with the knowledge that prevention is a powerful reality, drives me, an African-American woman with risk factors for heart disease, to lead by example. I pledge to reclaim ownership of my narrative — having successfully dropped over 140 pounds through lifestyle changes — to save my life and inspire other women (and men, too) to take charge of their heart stories.

Amidst heightened awareness, women continue to overlook that being female offers no immunity against heart disease. Shockingly, only 44% of women in the United States recognize it as their foremost killer! Yet, the truth is undeniable — heart disease does not discriminate based on gender; it wears a dress, too. Even I, a doctor, tried to sidestep acknowledging that fact until it knocked at my door. Confronting the loss of family to this condition, particularly considering the increased risk associated with family history, along with my mildly elevated blood pressure and the demands of my high-stress job, weighed heavily on my heart. The unwitting embrace of denial becomes an accomplice to heart disease, emphasizing the urgency of dispelling misconceptions and prioritizing heart health.

What does it mean to have a broken heart? The word itself provides a window into why this vital organ may not throb in sync. Each letter in H.E.A.R.T. reveals potential challenges that disrupt its ebb and flow.

H: Heart valve defects (valves not opening and closing correctly)

E: Excess fat, cholesterol, and calcium blocking blood vessels (plaque)

A: Abnormal heart rate (beating too fast or slow) or rhythm

R: Reduced blood flow to extremities causes pain and numbness

T: Trouble pumping enough blood to the body (AKA heart failure)

These heart-wrenching issues paint a vivid picture of an achy, breaky heart,

where each challenge is a potential precursor to a heart attack (a reduced amount of blood reaching the heart) and a stroke (decreased blood flow to the brain) waiting to happen.

So, what’s tugging on the heartstrings of the over 60 million women in the United States who are living with some form of heart disease? As we navigate the vulnerabilities of a woman’s heart —transitioning to menopause, crossing the threshold of 55, or the presence of a family history of heart disease — there are some things we women cannot change. However, lifestyle choices can be changed and can make a big difference in influencing the harmonious beat of the heart. Smoking, not getting enough exercise, and carrying extra weight can give the heart the blues. Women with diabetes, high cholesterol and blood pressure, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, glucose, and triglyceride levels plus obesity) are at risk of their heart hitting the wrong note. Stress is another factor that places a burden on the heart. If you’re experiencing stress, practicing daily breathing exercises could make a palpable difference.

As a physician, it’s genuinely disheartening to see patients overlook conditions that pose a threat to their lives — high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol because they do not feel sick. It pains my heart to witness people downplay their lifestyle choices, opting for the couch over the gym or choosing potato chips over more nourishing foods. Some patients even shy away from prescribed treatments, confusing natural approaches with doing nothing. The gravity of these decisions is not fully understood, and my deep concern is patients are unknowingly setting themselves up for a heart attack or stroke.

Social factors do not spare the heart, especially in women of color. The adverse impact of these factors becomes even more pronounced with the lack of access to healthcare, healthy nutrition, and the inability to afford medications and doctor visits, all of which are a strain on the heart. In the face of these heartbreaking circumstances, the hues of red that symbolize women and heart disease serve as poignant reminders of the urgent need for awareness and being proactive.

In a perfect world, our hearts would signal trouble in advance. However, the reality is that in most instances of a heart attack or stroke, there is no warning. When warning signs ARE present, they can be mistaken for something else or are so subtle you may look for an antacid to calm heartburn instead of immediately seeking help. It is crucial to note that traditional signs like chest pain, left jaw discomfort, and left arm pain are not the sole indicators of an ill heart. Recognizing the less common clues, especially in women, is paramount — from body aches, extreme fatigue, nausea, and indigestion to swollen ankles, legs, and feet — all signaling that their heart’s hazard lights are on.

How do you guard your heart? Women often take center stage in caring for those they love, leaving their health simmering on the back burner. Ladies, it’s time to turn up the volume on self-love, beginning with regular check-ups to keep tabs on all things concerning the heart. Since you are what you eat, commit to feeding your body vibrant fruits, veggies, lean proteins, and whole grains, skipping on less heart-friendly options (with an occasional treat). Groove to your favorite heart-pumping activity, whether a spirited walk, an invigorating jog, or dancing around the house. If you’re a smoker, consider parting ways with the habit for your heart’s sake. And when it comes to enjoying your favorite drink, savor it in moderation. Beat stress with mindfulness activities like meditation or rejuvenating yoga (try it hot!). Get 7 to 9 hours of beauty rest nightly. Stay in the loop when it comes to your family history. Your heart will thank you!

The relentless beats of heart disease often echo in silence. Yet, armed with heightened awareness and intentional action, we can drown out this ominous quiet and break down the barriers that hinder heart health. Together, we can dethrone heart disease from its stronghold as the number one killer of men and women, ensuring that more hearts beat with vitality, strength, and resilience.


 Image by Stephanie Mathews 


With 20-plus years in health and wellness, Dr. Bernadette is a respected authority and esteemed family physician. Her book, Fulfilled. 52 Prescriptions for Healing, Health, and Happiness (foreword by Dr. Howard Murad), is the core of her influential Fulfilled. wellness program, garnering her recognition as the Most Innovative Mental Wellness Programming Provider 2023—Midwest USA from Global Health and Pharma. Her literary work was also awarded the New York City Big Book Award in the Well-Being category and featured in Times Square.

Dr. Bernadette is a freelance writer for GoodRx, and she pens thought-provoking articles and essays for prestigious publications, including Essence, USA Today, NewsOne, NewYorkWeekly, and TheGrio. You can connect with her via  LinkedInInstagram, or visit her website for insights into living a healthier, more fulfilling life.