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During the final week of exams, as Belinda Jenkins got dressed to go out with her sister, she was struck with an intense pain in her chest, which she dismissed as indigestion. But before she could pop a TUMS, she collapsed, crippled by the pain. As she lay on the ground gasping for air, she frantically managed to call 911, before losing consciousness shortly afterward. At 26, Jenkins was having a massive heart attack that nearly took her life.
Heart disease is a slow killer that usually catches victims off guard because they either don’t know their risk factors or they don’t recognize the warning signs, until it’s too late. There is even more shocking news: In a recent survey of 1,000 at-risk baby boomers, conducted by the Association of Black Cardiologists, 79% did not view cardiovascular disease as a major health concern. Only 23% believed they were personally at risk. Each year, approximately 1 million Americans have a heart attack, which accounts for 41% of all deaths in the United States. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for African Americans, especially women. According to the American Heart Association, 40% of African American women died from heart disease in 2000.
“It was literally a wake-up call for me to slow down,” says Jenkins, now a 27-year-old marketing coordinator for National Repro Graphics in New York. “I was doing way too much between work, school, and home.” Jenkins also suffered from Type I diabetes since the age of 2 and was very disciplined in minding her health. She took insulin shots, watched her diet, and kept fit through sports, even playing for the college volleyball team during her freshman year. But while attending college full time, she also worked full time to finance her education, and her hectic schedule took a toll on her health. At times, she ran on four hours of sleep and downed pizza for lunch — when she had time. “There was a lot of stress to be able to keep myself in college and also pay my bills,” she says.
It wasn’t long before she started experiencing classic symptoms of a heart attack. “Two weeks before everything occurred, I had been experiencing some tightness in my chest, some shortness of breath,” recalls Jenkins. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night with [my heart] racing in my chest, and I would just attribute it to maybe a nightmare or something.” These symptoms, her history of diabetes, and the fact that her entire family suffered from diabetes, made Jenkins a likely candidate for a heart attack, despite her young age.
“Diabetes is a much more powerful risk factor for heart disease in women than in men,” explains Dr. Jennifer Mieres, director of nuclear cardiology at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York. “There’s a three- to seven-fold increase of heart attacks in diabetic women compared to a two-fold increase in diabetic men across the board.” Two out of three people with diabetes die of some type of