The American Heart Association (AHA) estimates half of Black women in the U.S. have some form of heart disease, and they’re more likely to die of the disease — and at younger ages — than white women. Now for the first time in the AHA’s nearly 100-year history, a woman is its president. Dr. Michelle Albert started the job on July 1. She has spent her career studying how heart disease affects Black women and other communities of color.
Black women are more likely to develop high blood pressure (HBP), which is the top risk factor for cardiovascular disease, says Albert, who’s a cardiologist at UCSF. She says that while the root cause is still officially unknown, characteristics such as being overweight, high salt intake, and low physical activity all contribute to HBP.
Albert was 14 years old when she realized she wanted to be a doctor. After a trip to the store, her grandfather had a heart attack. Her neighbor says he “just dropped dead on the street.” She says that experience has informed her desire to study cardiology.
“Heart disease is something that I was really drawn to beyond the family part. It's very mechanistic, and thinking where you can actually put two and two together once you know the basics, it's a lot of fun,” she says.
When Albert entered cardiology, she felt isolated because few Black women have been in the field. She says underrepresentation has other consequences as well.
“That has a direct effect on the care that patients get. It has a direct effect on the research that's done in medicine. We know that clinical concordance, that is the concordance between a patient and their provider, whether that provider be a physician, a nurse, a pharmacist, actually improves health outcomes,” she explains. “So if the numbers are low, then in terms of persons of color, especially persons from the African and Black diaspora, then the care will suffer.”
During her tenure, Albert says she wants to raise awareness around how economic hardship can affect someone’s physical health.