Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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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 for heart disease, the number of deaths attributable to one of those three causes rises to approximately one in three deaths in the U.S. — more than 800,000 people — in 2013, the most recent year for which data is currently available.   

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

Deaths here that are attributable to heart disease and stroke have declined for more than a decade, and some of the credit for the decline undoubtedly lies with efforts put forth throughout the Commonwealth by the American Heart Association’s local chapters, including the one in Richmond.

Rachael Schrinel, senior development director for the American Heart Association (AHA) in Richmond, outlined the organization’s goals that help guide efforts at both the local and national levels.

“Our mission is building healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke,” Schrinel said. “The goal by 2020 is to improve all Americans’ cardiovascular health by 20 percent while reducing deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke by 20 percent.”

With backing from their parent organization, Schrinel and her staff have a powerful ally in their local fight. The American Heart Association is the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke. Founded by six cardiologists in 1924, today’s AHA includes more than 22.5 million volunteers and supporters, 156 local offices and 3,000-plus employees funding innovative research, fighting for stronger public health policies, and providing critical tools and information to save and improve lives.

Schrinel points to some of her organization’s specific and local community efforts aimed at helping improve heart health and lives throughout Richmond.

For starters, the AHA is working to end obesity, she explains. Approximately 35 percent of Richmond-area adults are overweight, and another 28 percent are obese. Additionally, 30 percent of Virginia’s 10- to 17-year-olds are overweight or obese, and Virginia ranks first in the United States for childhood obesity rates among two- to five-year-olds.

To help lower those alarming rates, the American Heart Association is supporting a local Virginia advocacy priority this year that ensures healthy food and beverage options are available in public places, such as parks, recreation centers, libraries and other buildings. Locally, AHA advocates are working with the city of Richmond to support the development of a grocery store in Richmond’s East End, the opening of which would help the nearly 22,000 Richmond adults and 7,000 children faced with limited supermarket access.

In addition to combating obesity, Schrinel said her organization’s staff and volunteers are also focused on helping people control and reduce high blood pressure.

“It’s estimated that 80 million Americans have high blood pressure, and in about half of them it’s uncontrolled, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and other major health problems,” she explains. “Approximately 28 percent of Richmond residents have been told by their doctor they have high blood pressure. The good news, however, is that high blood pressure can be controlled and we are working with local medical partners through a nationwide initiative called Target: BP to help patients with high blood pressure reduce it to healthy levels. Locally, this program has the potential to impact 102,000 patients.”

Schrinel said her organization also advocates for laws at the local, state and national levels that improve the health of all individuals. In 2013, for example, American Heart Association advocates were instrumental in passing Gwyneth’s Law, which requires all Virginia high school students to be trained in CPR before they graduate. Based on enrollment data and as a direct result of this law, 13,089 local students will join this army of lifesavers annually. In 2014, AHA advocates helped pass legislation requiring all newborns in Virginia to receive a pulse oximetry screening to detect congenital heart defects, the most common birth defect in infants worldwide.
AHA’s deep commitment to cutting-edge research benefits the Richmond community.

“Only the federal government funds more cardiovascular research than we do,” Schrinel says. “AHA does this by convening top scientific and medical experts to annually review thousands of submitted research proposals and then choose the most deserving studies, which are then funded through support from our donors. While the researchers are nationwide, we are proud to have active research studies being conducted right here in Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Virginia, McGuire VA Medical Center and Virginia Tech.”

AHA funding and research are yielding important results, with AHA funding 13 Nobel Prize winners as well as breakthroughs in treatment and prevention, including CPR techniques, the first artificial heart valve, implantable pacemakers, cholesterol inhibitors, microsurgery and drug-coated stents.

“We also bring science to life so we can stop heart disease before it starts,” Schrinel explains. “We fund the development of evidence-based guidelines that help physicians treat patients using the latest scientific findings, and we promote these standards by educating consumers, healthcare providers and scientists.”

Sadly, adults aren’t the only population affected by heart-related health issues. Children suffer too, as the world’s most common birth defect is a congenital heart defect. AHA’s Richmond chapter assists local children by helping further lifesaving research on congenital heart defects (CHD) through a joint initiative of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association and the Children’s Heart Foundation.

This new alliance will not only provide $29 million in grants to further research over the next five years, but also provides an outlet to encourage conversations among parents and caregivers through its Patient Support Network. This network connects people living with heart disease and stroke with others who are experiencing a similar journey and offers an online community as well as materials for starting face-to-face community support groups.

In addition, both organizations will continue to raise awareness about CHDs, the need to address national policies for early CHD detection, and health advances that can change the life expectancy of babies born with a congenital heart defect.

Funds raised here stay here.

To help fund all of this groundbreaking research, AHA’s Richmond chapter hosts several annual fundraising events, including the Heart Walk, the Go Red for Women Luncheon and the Heart Ball. The Heart Walk alone has seen a 60 percent increase in revenue over the last three years, and when figures are coupled with those from the Heart Ball, it raises more money than any other Heart Walk or Heart Ball in the state — something Schrinel and her team are very proud of achieving.

For every dollar raised through these fundraisers, 75 cents stay within the Mid-Atlantic Affiliate — of which Virginia is a member — and 20 percent of that amount 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.

“Pooling our dollars with the other six affiliates across the country and with the national center enables AHA to provide higher quality programs and resources to local communities,” Schrinel says. “For example, we know that research performed in Boston about congenital heart defects and why they form will benefit all children, not just those in Boston.”

Looking forward to 2017

In addition to all the local events planned, the AHA’s Richmond chapter is helping the organization reach its 2020 impact goal by building a “culture of health” wherein the healthy choice is the easy and popular one, Schrinel explains. To accomplish this goal, the AHA will continue to advocate for laws and public policies that change communities, focus on areas where it can make the biggest impact — including high blood pressure control — and provide education and resources to underserved populations.

Individuals or organizations interested in donating to the American Heart Association’s Richmond chapter, or receiving information about local sponsorship opportunities, should contact the chapter by calling 804-965-6535.