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Making A Difference In Heart Health Locally

Written by  Rich Ellis

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing more than 370,000 people annually, according to the American Heart Association.

When statistics for stroke and other cardiovascular diseases are combined with those of heart disease, the number of deaths attributable to one of these three causes rises to approximately one in every three deaths in the U.S. – which was more than 800,000 people in 2013 alone, the most recent year for which data is available.  

Virginia is no exception to these sobering national statistics, but there is some good news.

The deaths attributable to heart disease and stroke in Virginia have been declining for more than a decade, and some of the credit for this undoubtedly lies with efforts put forth throughout the Commonwealth by the American Heart Association’s local chapters, including the one in Roanoke.

Cyndi Bade, the regional vice president for the American Heart Association (AHA) in Roanoke, outlined the organization’s goals, which guide efforts at both the local and national levels.

“Our mission is building healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke,” Bade says. “We fund innovative research, fight for stronger public health policy and provide critical education to healthcare providers and the public to help save and improve lives. We’re working on a goal by the year 2020 to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent and reduce the deaths from cardiovascular disease by 20 percent.”

That goal was set in 2010 by the association’s national board, Bade says. Statistics show that, while they’re on track to reach the death-reduction goal, there is still work to be done on realizing the health-improvement goal.

With backing from the parent organization, Bade and her staff have a powerful ally in their local fight. The American Heart Association is the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization that is dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke, she explains. Founded by six cardiologists in 1924, the organization today includes more than 22.5 million volunteers and supporters, 156 local offices and 3,000-plus employees, and it has a presence in every state.

Bade points to some of her organization’s specific and local community efforts that aim to improve heart health and lives throughout the Roanoke Valley. “On the preventive side, it requires people actually take measurable steps in their lives to be healthier,” Bade explains. “35 percent of Virginia adults are overweight or obese, and 74 percent of Virginians don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables daily. We know there’s a link between diet and cardiovascular disease, so one of the local Virginia priorities we’re working on this year is to try to bring healthy food and beverage options to all communities and public places. Working at the state level, this advocacy program – called the Virginia Grocery Investment Fund – is trying to bring grocery stores and other healthy retailers to all Virginia communities, particularly in areas where we have food deserts. It’s estimated that 1.7 million Virginia residents are living in areas with limited supermarket access.”

Statistics for Virginia’s children show room for health improvements too, as 30 percent of Virginia’s 10- to 17-year-olds are overweight or obese. Additionally, Virginia ranks first in the United States for childhood obesity rates among 2- to 5-year-olds.

Another example of the American Heart Association’s advocacy efforts resulting in positive change occurred in 2013, and it also targeted children, Bade says. That year, AHA advocates were instrumental in passing Gwyneth’s Law, which requires all high school students in Virginia to be trained in CPR before they graduate. The law went into effect this year for the 2017 graduating class; as a result of this policy, more than 8,000 students from the Roanoke and Salem-area high schools will learn CPR over the next four years.

<1>AHA’s deep commitment to cutting-edge research benefits the Roanoke community.
The American Heart Association is the second-largest funder of cardiovascular research after the federal government, Bade explains. AHA funds research nationwide, with active research studies in Virginia being conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. In the past year, AHA also funded research at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

“The important thing is it’s funded nationwide, but the results of that research have implications that go everywhere,” Bade says. “Some breakthroughs in treatment that AHA has funded over the years included CPR techniques, artificial heart valves, pacemakers, stents and cholesterol drugs. All of those things came about because the researchers that discovered them were funded by AHA at some point in their career.”

Funds that are raised here stay here.

To help fund all of this groundbreaking research, AHA’s Roanoke chapter hosts several fundraising events each year, including the annual Heart Ball, the Go Red for Women Luncheon and the Heart Walk.

“The Roanoke Heart Ball is February 25 at the Hotel Roanoke,” Bade says. “This is our signature black-tie event that brings together community leaders, healthcare providers, philanthropists – anyone with an interest in advancing AHA’s mission. It’s a really fun night with a dinner program, auction and featured survivor story, and we expect between 300 and 400 guests. It’s also an opportunity to give back and support the mission through donations.”

Another local event is the Go Red for Women Luncheon. While the luncheon is held in May, it is actually part of a year-round campaign to educate women about their heart disease risks – risks that are considerable, given that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, killing more women annually than all forms of cancer combined. When the program began 15 years ago, Bade says, most women didn’t realize that was the case, nor did their physicians. Heart disease was traditionally considered a man’s disease, despite the fact that it leads to the deaths of just as many women per year as men.

“Since the start of Go Red around 2003 or 2004, we’ve increased awareness among women by 60 percent so that they now know that heart disease is their number one risk,” Bade explains. “And we’re working on an initiative to encourage women to go see their doctors annually for a wellness visit to have their cholesterol and blood pressure checked on a regular basis and mitigate that risk. We’re also doing a lot of education around taking charge of your own health by eating healthier, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and reducing stress.”

AHA’s Heart Walk is a third fundraising and awareness event that occurs each fall, generally in October.

For every dollar raised through these events, 75 cents stay within the Mid-Atlantic Affiliate (of which Virginia is a member); 20 percent of this is allocated to supporting regional research projects, while 80 percent funds local mission programs and operations. The remaining 25 cents help fund nationwide programs, research and operations.

Individuals or organizations that are interested in donating to the American Heart Association’s Roanoke chapter or receiving information about local events or sponsorship opportunities should contact the AHA office in Roanoke.