By Alicia Powell
NEW YORK (Reuters) - After her mother and sister died within 30 days from heart disease, Stephanie Johnson made it her mission to fight against the killer often brought on by high blood pressure.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and the No. 1 killer of Black women, with an annual toll of nearly 50,000, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
Nearly half of Black women aged over 20 have heart disease, but most are unaware of the risks.
Johnson created Release the Pressure (RTP), a coalition to raise awareness among Black women.
"African Americans, Black Americans are 30% more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic whites," said Johnson, American Medical Association's vice president of communications and product strategies.
"High blood pressure increases the risk of heart disease because the heart is working harder," explained Dr. Peggy Roberts, founder and chief executive of Trust Women's Healthcare.
Stroke, heart attack, aneurysm and heart arrhythmia are major risks. Stress from racism can raise blood pressure.
"On top of all the social stressors that we have to deal with being Black in America, it's too much," Johnson said.
Nutritionist Coach Gessie Thompson, founder of TheDetoxNow.com, nearly died in 2020 after her blood pressure spiked from stress. She is providing digital heart health kits and helping with RTP's goal to send out 100,000 free validated blood pressure cuffs to Black women by 2027.
Home testing can be more accurate than in a doctor's office where nerves and other factors can skew a reading.
Despite years of headaches and multiple miscarriages, Nichola Hamilton, 38, only knew she had high blood pressure on her first visit with Dr. Roberts. She got a reading of 160 over 100. Less than 120 over 80 is considered normal but pressure above 130/80 requires focused treatment.
"It's really important that we have the information as a community to be able to advocate for ourselves," said Dr. Aletha Maybank, chief health equity officer and senior vice president of the American Medical Association.
(The story corrects organization name in fifth paragraph.)
(Reporting by Alicia Powell; Editing by Richard Chang and Diane Craft)