Black Women and Heart Health: Know the Symptoms Of Attack and Be Smart About Your Heart

My mother had beautiful hands—lovely, long and fresh, just like her. She kept her fingernails dipped in maroons and dark browns—subtle, but still noticeable. Strong. As she got older, though, Mommy’s hands became gnarled with the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis, almost at the same time that a workplace accident took out a disc in her spine. She spent an enormous amount of time posted up in hospital beds and doctors’ offices—enough so that when minor things caught hold of her, like coughs or stomachaches or any other general malaise, she paid it no mind. Soldiered on.

Doing this cost my mother her life.

My mother, you see, died at age 62 of a heart attack, five days into a family reunion trip to her childhood home. She got on the plane experiencing flu-like symptoms—shortness of breath, weakness, unusual fatigue, dizziness, back pain, but thought nothing of her malaise—that is was nothing serious. And even though everyone around her could tell something was seriously, progressively wrong, Mommy refused to go to the hospital—refused to let someone take a look at her. To care for her. She preferred to soldier on.

What she and our family failed to realize, though, is that my mother was experiencing all the classic female symptoms that signal a heart attack is imminent—signs of which all-too-many of us are completely unaware. By the time anyone was able to talk her into allowing an ambulance to rush her to the hospital, she died, right there on the floor of her childhood home, with one each of her brothers and sisters standing by—hopeless, helpless.

This did not have to be.

And so today, in the name of my mother, Bettye Millner, I implore each of you reading this post to know the heart attack symptoms for women, as well as the risks associated with them. I wrote about this last year—as I do every year—but certainly it bears repeating:

  • Women tend not to have the clutch-your-heart, movie-styled heart attacks that men have; our symptoms are more likely to include all those that my mother experienced, plus nausea, lower chest discomfort, upper abdominal pressure and nausea.
  • Women can exhibit symptoms up to a week before their heart muscles suffer irreparable damage, leading us to believe that we’re suffering from something other than a heart attack.
  • Heart attacks are the leading cause of death among all women, but black women are affected in even greater numbers, particularly because the risk factors associated with heart disease include diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure—huge health issues for us.
  • It’s critical that we keep our heart muscles strong through exercise, weight control, healthy eating, refraining from smoking and watching our cholesterol and blood pressure.

What’s more, heart disease is plaguing and devastating the health and well-being of African American women in particular, because we simply do not know the stakes. According to the American Heart Association:

  • Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for African American women.
  • Of African American women ages 20 and older, 46.9 percent have cardiovascular disease
  • Only 1 in 5 African American women thinks she is personally at risk.
  • Nearly 50 percent of African American women are aware of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
  • Only 43 percent of African American knows that heart disease is their greatest health risk.

I’m writing about this not just to honor my mother, but in support of a month-long nationwide effort to encourage women to get smart about heart health. While the American Heart Association encourages women to wear red in support of heart health awareness, companies like Diet Coke are partnering all month long with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to boost The Heart Truth®, a campaign that reminds us women to protect our heart health and inspire those we love to do the same.

Go to the American Heart Association’s site to learn more about heart disease and its risks, plus hear the stories of real women who survived the devastation of heart attack. My favorite page on the American Heart Association site is “Live Healthy,” which houses exercise tips, suggestions for healthy snacks and eating-on-the-go, plus a super smart section on heart healthy dinners under $100 per week, plus tips for feeding picky eaters.

I encourage you, too, to upload heart-inspired photos to Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #ShowYourHeart to trigger a donation from Diet Coke to the Foundation for the National Institutees of Health. Diet Coke will donate $1, up to $100,000, for every #ShowYourHeart upload. I’m going to do my part by sharing my heart—a picture of my mother.

I do miss my mother’s hands—their warmth. Her touch. There were days aplenty that I laid with her in her bed and held them while we got lost in the din of the TV, not saying much of anything, but knowing, for sure that our love knew no bounds. There are times when remembering those moments simply isn’t enough. I want her back and wish with all my might that she and our family would have known the symptoms of heart attack in women. We found out the hard way. You do not have to. Be heart smart—not just in February but everyday. Share this post with everyone you know so that they can be heart smart, too.


1. I’ll Always Love My Mama
2. Smart Heart Health: Black Women CAN Save Themselves From Needless Tragedy
3. Get Heart Smart: Show Your Support For African American Women’s Heart Health

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. That’s a very emotional story, sorry about the loss of your mom, but if I may, with the increase in heart attack among women especially women in their 30s now, I’m beginning to think men and husbands might be a major contributing factor to this, like in Nigeria where I am, men cheat on there wives regularly, it is no longer a sin ,as a matter of fact , if you don’t have extra marital affair then you are not man enough. This and other issues might triger stress and raise blood pressure which eventually causes heart attack if not properly managed. Men and boys around the world especially black men in Africa should help us reduce heart attack in women.
    I’m new to blogging check my blog site

  2. Thank You Denene for sharing such a testimony in strength,love & education. I work in the health care education industryand see this everyday. We are always the last to take care of ourselvesand we should be first. It’s not selfish, its mindful because if we don’t take care of us we won’t be around to take care of the ones love. Please do not ignore what your body is telling you, we are designed for this….stay healthy!

  3. I’m so grateful for this post. My mom had a heart attack 2 months ago today. She had blockage to her heart that had to be removed and something called a heart stent had to be placed there. She’s on a slew of new medications and I worry about her. Her diet was supposed to change but it didn’t. She has a mean sweet tooth despite being a diabetic for the last 18 years. I don’t know what to say or do to make her realize that she is playing with her life.

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