By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When a woman gets pregnant, her priority is usually the baby, but her health matters too. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in new moms. It is a tragic fact, that the organization is hoping to change.
Earlier this week, the American Heart Association hosted a discussion titled “Heart Health for Moms and Every Woman.” The event was part of the organization’s EmPOWERED Women’s Roundtable series.
Pamela Johnson is national vice president of Health Equity and Partnerships and the national executive director for the National Hypertension Control Initiative for the American Heart Association.
She explained that the group’s roundtable discussion began earlier this year as a way to shed light on the health issues that effect women of color. The group has discussed mental health, the opioid epidemic and more. In honor of National Women’s Health Week, the organization chose to focus maternal health.
“The United States has the worst maternal mortality rates in the developed world,” said Nancy Brown, the CEO of the American Heart Association. “Over 700 new moms lose their life every single year.”
Black, Native American and Alaskan Native women are disproportionally impacted by this statistic, Brown said. These women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy related complications, she said.
Candi Castleberry Singleton, the vice president of Diversity Partnership Strategy and Engagement of Twitter, moderated the conversation.
“I imagine that sometimes during pregnancy you have an age where you probably not thinking much about heart health,” she said. “And I think sometimes that can be one of the challenges that you don’t connect the two.”
“It’s really important for us to not overly contribute symptoms to pregnancy,” said Dr. Juliet Nevins.
Someone may experience shortness of breath due to the physiological changes or changes in the anatomy, but people should be careful not to attribute all changes to pregnancy.
Heart palpitations and shortness of breath could be an indication of something else and should be reported to providers.
Why do women in communities of color continue to bare the burden of maternal mortality, Castleberry Singleton asked the panelists.
Dr. Rachel Bond said that the social determinants play a role in the inequity in health care. Where someone was raised or where someone lives determines the access someone has to quality health care and continuous health care. Racism more than race and ethnicity have been the core figure in determining those social factors.
“The social and economic injustices definitely put Black and brown women on a trajectory that is disparate than that of their white counterparts,” Nevins said. “The argument becomes circuitous. We enter pregnancy with more chronic disease burden but those chronic disease burdens are being caused by our ZIP code in terms of diet, exercise, air, access to health care in terms of literally distant and lack of transportation for example.”
Eleni Tsigas, the executive director of the Preeclampsia Foundation, talked about the dangers of cy condition that is often indicated by high blood pressure.
“The symptoms may or may not be bad or they may not be indicators of something bad,” Tsigas said.
Symptoms include headaches, visual disturbances, excessive swelling in the upper extremities, feeling nauseous late in pregnancy or gaining weight quickly. None of these alone would raise alarms, but it’s enough that women should report it, she said.
The group also talked about what it will take to get equitable health care, addressing systemic and racist barriers, understanding health literacy and what it means to advocate for yourself and others.
“Just do one thing, don’t try to do 10 just do one,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s walking, making a healthier choice when it comes to food or if its meditating or focusing on yourself and taking that mental health day, just take that one small step and that leads to many others.”
For more information visit goredforwomen.org. The full roundtable discussion can be viewed on the American Heart Association YouTube page