National "Wear Red" Day is February 3, 2012, as declared by the American Heart Association; this is part of their "Go Red for Women" campaign, created to empower women to take care of their heart health. This is a timely message every year, as heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women.

Couple the concern about heart disease with the recent studies indicating that grief, loss and emotional pain can also have adverse effects on your heart, and we have much to talk about: Heart disease is not just a physiologic concern related to cholesterol and the like, but also a psychological/emotional concern, related to emotional and social stressors. This fact bears increased importance for Black women...body, mind and soul.

Body: Black women have the highest mortality rate from heart disease compared to all American women. Black women also have the highest death rate from stroke, compared to other women (per 100,000 women, there are 37.9 deaths for Black women, compared to 22.5 deaths for Whites).

Both the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the American Heart Association report that minority and low-income populations have a higher rate of death due to cardiovascular disease (CVD). This may be due to many factors including lack of access to medical care, or the lack of health insurance. It may be due to lifestyle choices, apathy, and the simple failure to make one's health a priority. As you likely know, CVD is also due to high blood pressure (HBP)--also called "hypertension"; high cholesterol, sedentary living, diabetes, obesity, poor dietary regimens, alcohol use/abuse and cigarette smoking. Taking steps to mitigate those risk factors are key to reducing one's risk.

Mind: In January 2012 there were reports that grief can literally "break your heart." With grief, there is a loss--a loss of a loved one, and all that that relationship afforded. But people experience grief, or loss even without an actual death of someone. There is the loss of a dream deferred, or possibly denied. There may be a loss of acceptance by a group to which you wish to belong, or simply being accepted, appreciated and valued for who you are.

In Living Well, there is a discussion about the work of Naomi Eisenberger, a neuroscience researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). She looked at how the brain responds when people feel excluded. I found Eisenberger's research and findings to be very significant, and I see a strong connection of her findings to what many Black women experience on a near-daily basis.

Eisenberger's experiment is described in the book, but in short, her study demonstrated that the brain responds to rejection and social pain: The ["suffering"] parts of the brain that "light up" on a functional MRI scan in response to social rejection also "light up" when physical pain is experienced. This indicates that rejection and social pain causes the near-same physical response. More simply stated: The brain responds to emotional pain the near-same way it does to physical pain.

"When people felt excluded," says Eisenberger, "...those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region." In other words, the feeling of being excluded provoked the same sort of reaction in the brain that physical pain might cause. How often do Black women feel--and are--excluded from many social situations? This finding ties in directly with the "Societal Stress and Black Women's Health: The ‘Rejection Connection'" color flowchart in Living Well.

In that chart, social stressors such as low marriage statistics, colorism, misogynistic lyrics, negative media images, the rejection of Black women's naturally-occurring beauty features (though praised when bought by others [think collagen implants, tanners, bronzers, etc.]), denigration and more seem to cause stress in some women and with that, there is a rise in stress hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol and other stress hormones have a deleterious effect on the heart, body weight, immunity and more. Since Black women experience most of this social stress and rejection, it follows that these factors contribute to a poorer health care outcome for this demographic. Align Eisenberger's study with the "Rejection Connection" flowchart, and together, the unmistakable link of social rejection and social stress on Black women to the ongoing state of her physical health is made evident. This directly affects Black women's heart health.

Soul: But guess what ladies? Do you know that Black women are living well despite all that "social rejection" hell? With all the negativity, and social stress; with the inequity of Black men graduates compared to Black women; with the loss of men to the down-low lifestyle; with the high rate of most Black women living as head-of-household compared to other women, and more Black women living in poverty than others...with all that stress you'd think that Black women might be jumping off bridges or slitting their wrists in alarming numbers.

But no! Black women have the absolute lowest rate of suicide compared to any other group of women. According to the US HHS, White women have three times the rate of suicide of Black women. Is that a testament of Black women's strength, fortitude, self-determination, courage or what!?

Today's Black woman is living well--better, stronger and more financially secure than ever before; societal negatives be damned. As stated here, there are many phenomenal Black women doing phenomenal things! They are women of power, homeowners, CEOs, and also loving wives, mothers and beloved members of their communities. Now is your time for having it all, and getting it good!

So take care of your heart. Bolster yourself with proper health care decisions: Get your annual checkups, watch your diet, exercise and don't smoke. Also surround yourself with good "inner circle" friends and rid yourself of the negativity that might seek to afflict your body, mind and soul.
Be Healthy, Be Blessed...and make sure you are Living Well in 2012!

Living Well, Despite Catchin' Hell, a book about health, sex and happiness, with a foreword by Pauletta Washington, musician and wife of Academy Award winner, Denzel Washington; and endorsed by psychologist Dr. Jeff Gardere and others. The book includes current comparative data for Black, White, Hispanic, Asian and Native American women. The first book in 8 years addressing Black women's health; also addresses the effects of negative stereotypes. (print and eBook).

Copyright © 2012 Dr. Melody T. McCloud. All rights reserved. Any excerpts reproduced from this article should include a hyperlink to this--my original post on Psychology Today, with author credit. Feel free to post the link to this, and any of my PT posts, to your social network pages. Follow me here at PT (mostly); and now (I'm finally, joining the fray) on Twitter: @DrMelodyMcCloud.

Melodies of the Heart: Poems of Life & Love (eBook with erotic love poems)

Medical Bloopers! Amusing & Amazing Stories of Health Care Workers (foreword by Dr. Neil Shulman, author of Doc Hollywood). (now as an eBook)

About the Author

Melody T. McCloud M.D.

Melody T. McCloud, M.D., is an obstetrician-gynecologist and the author of First Do No Harm: How to Heal Your Relationships Using the Wisdom of Professional Caregivers.

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