A number of Black public figures have recently passed due to poor heart health. While heart disease prevention is extremely important for everyone, it is vital for African Americans to understand that we do not only suffer the most but must know all we can do to improve our health for generations to come. Many of us are all too familiar with the causes: genetics, foods we consume, environments in which we live. But how and where exactly do we begin to monitor our health to create a better tomorrow for our children and our children's children??

Black women are 49% more likely to develop heart disease, and black men, 44% more likely white men (37%) and white women (32%). A recent update from both the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Associations reports that heart disease took the lives of 100,000 African Americans in 2017. That number is scary! But what would be even scarier, is not educating ourselves on the many avenues we can take to alter this statistic.

I spoke to Dr. Garth Graham, a Yale medical school educated cardiologist and President of the Aetna Foundation, who has been a dedicated advocate and agent of change in African American health for over a decade. Dr. Graham shared three insightful tips, suggestions and overall strides we as black millennials can take to keep ourselves as well as each other healthy.

1. “Knowing your HDL is just as important as knowing your bank account pin number”

Do you know our cholesterol levels? Total Cholesterol, HDL Cholesterol Blood, Blood Pressure, Blood Sugar and Body Mass Index (BMI) are the heart health numbers that can help you and your provider determine your risk for cardiovascular disease and plan for your future. They are all important, and you should be aware of them to stay on top of your health and reduce your risk for heart disease.

2. Work/volunteer with organizations that specifically work to improve black health

There are national organizations working to improve black health, in both rural and urban areas. Aetna Foundation’s Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge is addressing health inequalities in communities across the country. One organization with whom they’ve collaborated is Village HeartBEAT, located in Mecklenburg, North Carolina.

A partnership with the Mecklenburg County Department of Health, Village HeartBEAT just received Aetna Foundation’s Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge Spotlight Award for their work to improve health and address heart disease in predominately African American communities.

Those involved are working to reduce the incidence of health disease in several Public Health Priority Areas throughout Mecklenburg County and will provide training for 600 "Health Ambassadors" to create policy changes and promote healthy behaviors within congregations and local communities. Read more about the initiative here:

The Healthiest Cities & Counties Challenge is a partnership between the Aetna Foundation, the National Association of Counties and the American Public Health Association. Other cities participating in the Challenge include Tulsa City, OK, San Diego County, CA, Kansas City, MO, New Haven, CT, Cleveland, OH, and Durham, NC. Find out the initiatives your city is taking to create and foster healthier environments for African Americans.

3. Vote responsibly and hold elected officials accountable

It’s crucial, especially in our current political climate, to be informed on every candidate running for office at both the local and national levels. Attend town hall meetings and stay up-to-date on community news and developments. 

Read up on your local councilman/woman, contact them, and ask what steps they are taking to improve the health of your family. Your local leaders are responsible for the building and upkeep of safe spaces and recreational centers with swimming pools and basketball courts, and for implementing/fundraising health seminars and events that are not only educational, but interesting, inspiring, and youth-friendly. Find out what superintendents are doing to ensure kids have hearty, yet wholesome snacks and lunches, specifically in low-income areas, and that they are hiring teachers who truly believe knowledge is power. Instructors who believe reading is still fundamental. If kids read, and go on to pursue higher education, they are less likely to fall back into predicaments with limited access to healthy food and safe housing, and can, as a result, reach back into their communities and become informed, elected officials themselves.

It's necessary to understand the role that we play as black millennials with the knowledge, technology, resources, and overall ability we possess to adjust these numbers. We hold the power to break these barriers in black health, and it starts today.