The American Heart Association’s founders faced shocking ignorance and hopelessness about heart disease. Tuesday the organization will mark how far it has come in fighting the No. 1 killer of all Americans, 90 years to the day six doctors decided to disprove the idea that people with heart disease were simply doomed.
On June 10, 1924, these doctors met in Chicago to form the American Heart Association, based on the belief that scientific research could lead the way to better treatment, prevention and ultimately a cure. Since then, the association has evolved from a professional society to a nationwide voluntary organization working to save and improve lives.
“The American Heart Association has grown into an organization of over 22 million volunteers and supporters dedicated to the continued extraordinary impact of improving heart health and reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke,” said President Mariell Jessup, M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and medical director of Penn’s Heart and Vascular Center.
The results are in the numbers: The heart disease death rate has dropped about 50 percent over the last 50 years for which official statistics are available. In 1950, heart disease killed 356 out of 100,000 Americans. By 2010 the number shrunk to 179 per 100,000.
Many aspects of the association’s work have helped lower death rates and help people get healthier, including better patient treatment, efforts to reduce smoking and secondhand smoke exposure, lifesaving scientific research, CPR training, laws creating healthy environments, and public awareness about healthy living.
“We’ve done something that few other institutions can claim — we’ve changed the way life is experienced,” said Clyde Yancy, M.D., a past AHA president and chief of the Division of Cardiology and the Magerstadt Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Many American started changing the way they ate in 1956, after AHA-funded research linked dietary fat and cholesterol.
In 1969, the association issued a statement on cigarette labeling and advertising legislation. Cigarette ads on TV and radio were soon banned. The following year, the AHA started warning the public about early heart attack signs.
By 1981, the AHA was advocating for healthier public policies. Over the years those efforts helped help pass laws that banned smoking in public places, ensured healthier meals at school and removed trans fats from foods.
Science has always powered the association’s efforts. The AHA uses donations to fund more research than any organization outside the federal government. It has funded 13 scientists who have won Nobel Prizes, including nine for research the association supported.
One of them is Peter Agre, who gives credit to the AHA for funding his discovery of aquaporins — “the plumbing system for cells” — is paving the way for drugs to help diseases characterized by too much or too little fluid.
“The award was pivotal,” said Agre, who earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. “I was a young scientist, enthusiastic, without big-time credentials, and the AHA saw fit to fund me. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Large gifts over the years have helped the association support new research projects and education programs, including more efforts to address heart disease and stroke in women and minorities.
And people started walking the talk. In 1992, Kenneth Cooper, M.D., MPH, who founded the Cooper Aerobics Center, led the first Dallas Heart Walk. It has grown into the association’s top fundraiser.
“Working with the American Heart Association to improve heart health and wellness continues to be an integral part of Cooper Aerobics’ mission to create healthier lives around the world,” Cooper said.
The American Stroke Association was officially launched in 1998, raising awareness about stroke, the No. 4 killer and a leading cause of disability.
And today, there’s a lot to celebrate — including the rise of primary and comprehensive stroke centers to treat the disease and widely used treatment recommendations, said Ralph Sacco, M.D., M.S., chairman of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“We’re at the forefront of so many programs to promote ideal cardiovascular and brain health for all Americans,” said Sacco, who in 2010 became the first neurologist to serve as the AHA’s president.
“It is amazing to see an organization’s unstoppable response to the growing epidemic of heart disease and stroke in the United States,” said Donna Arnett, Ph.D., a stroke survivor, past AHA president and chairperson of the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health. “Not only did the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association respond to this epidemic by bringing forward the best science about interventions in its scientific meetings and publications, they also funded the best science so that the best treatments could be brought forward to improve survival.”
In 1998, the American Heart Association set a goal to reduce coronary heart disease, stroke and risk factors by 25 percent. After 10 years, deaths were down, but increasing obesity and sedentary lifestyles led to more aggressive goals and programs.
The association’s newest national goal is to improve the heart health of all Americans by 20 percent while reducing deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent by 2020.
With 2020 just around the corner, Jessup notes the AHA is already looking well into the future.
“Our goal over the next century is to translate our cardiovascular knowledge and to build still more powerful partnerships into a meaningful improvement in the health of all Americans,” Jessup said. “This is a big reach that the AHA can make a reality.”
Improving the quality of healthcare is a big part of the picture, with programs to help healthcare providers consistently treat patients with proven standards and procedures, and improve emergency systems of care to help patients who suffer STEMI, a severe heart attack.
The AHA is the nation’s leader in CPR science, education and training, teaching the lifesaving skill to nearly 15 million people a year.
At the end of May, the association announced that more than 1 million high school students a year will be trained in CPR, thanks to the latest state laws requiring the skill as a graduation requirement.
One person who continues to advocate for such laws is Joe Quigley, whose daughter Olivia was 6 when she nearly died after going into sudden cardiac arrest at her East Boston school. Fast-thinking, CPR-trained teachers saved her life.
“With the help of the American Heart Association we can talk to schools, parents and students about the importance of CPR training and early defibrillation,” he said. “We are able to show that with just a little training and the right equipment we can increase the chances of survival.”
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