American Heart Association Helps People Live Longer, Better
The frightening sight of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffering heart failure during a football game transcended sports fans to capture the attention of an entire nation. Thankfully, Hamlin survived and is expected to recover, and there is a silver lining to this episode.
“We saw a traumatic event, and that reminder has really increased awareness of heart diseases,” reported Coretta LaGarde, executive director of the American Heart Association of Greater New Orleans. “We had a 200% increase in traffic to our website. This is not a new story, but it was played out for the world to see.”
The prevalence of heart disease in the United States is staggeringly high, and it is even worse in New Orleans and Louisiana.
“Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, and it actually claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined,” LaGarde affirmed. “Forty-four percent of women aged 20 and older are living with some form of heart disease.”
To confront this enormous medical issue, the American Heart Association takes a wide-ranging approach, beginning with informing as many people as possible about the scale of the problem. This includes making sure people are aware of major risk factors for heart disease, such as hypertension, obesity and diabetes.
“Physical and mental well-being are both vital,” said LaGarde. “People need to be aware of their minds, bodies and hearts. A lot of it is lifestyle, eating well and exercising.”
More information on this is outlined in the AHA’s “Life’s Essential 8” approach, which can be found at www.heart.org/Lifes8.
Mitigation and treatment are also at the forefront of AHA’s work; one key component is training as many people as possible on CPR practices. “Seventy percent of cardiac arrests outside of the hospital occur in the home, which means you are going to depend on a loved one to provide CPR,” LaGarde noted.
In addition to having CPR training sites all over Louisiana, AHA particularly focuses on bringing this knowledge into schools. All local high schools have received CPR kits and training; per a state law passed in 2014, following the death of a high school athlete whose life might have been saved by timely treatment, such training is now a requirement for graduation. This will, in LaGarde’s words, “make sure we have the next generation of life-savers trained.”
Schools are also the focus of AHA’s anti-tobacco initiatives, as well as hosting screenings for potential heart disease indicators such as blood pressure and cholesterol issues. Screenings are also offered in other community gathering spots such as churches and senior centers, and are always accompanied by as much information-sharing as possible.
Going one level up the education ladder, AHA is working with Dillard and Xavier universities on a new HCBU Scholars Program, providing support to science and medical students. People of color are vastly underrepresented in health care, which in turn negatively impacts health care access for communities of color; yet these communities are frequently at the highest risk for heart diseases and their predicators.
Also in service of addressing the access issue, AHA partners with a variety of local, federally-qualified health clinics to deliver information and services relating to awareness, prevention and treatment of heart disease and related factors. One key aspect of this cited by LaGarde is “providing people with the tools and resources to monitor their chronic diseases. We have seen significant improvements in outcomes as a result.”
While heart diseases are all too common across all demographics, its prevalence among women really drives LaGarde’s programming focus. One example of this is AHA’s annual “Go Red For Women” luncheon, taking place this year on March 3. Along with lunch and a fashion show, the event includes educational materials and an awareness fair. It is all part of a larger awareness-building campaign around the impact of heart diseases on women.
LaGarde is relatively new to her position, having joined AHA in July, 2022. But her passion for the work is clear.
“I really am a champion for health and equity, and for people leading full, healthy lives in Louisiana,” she said. “I’m very excited about our work.”
While that work is obviously year-round, it receives a particular spotlight in February, which is national Heart Month. “It’s an opportunity to start the new year off with an emphasis on heart health,” observed LaGarde.
That spotlight is even brighter in the wake of the Damar Hamlin episode. “People are really counting on us in a different way now,” said LaGarde. “We have always had a focus on educating people about the risks, but we are always looking for new and innovative ways to inform people. I want us to be a relentless force for a world of longer and healthier lives.”
For more information about heart disease and AHA programs, go to www.heart.org/Louisiana.