U.S. Heart Group Takes Prevention Message Global

By Charlene Porter
Staff Writer

The American Heart Association (AHA) is a world expert on educating people about preventing heart attack and stroke and resuscitating people who’ve suffered a cardiac event. The nongovernmental organization operates international training centers in 69 countries, with training outreach in more than 140 countries.

The AHA is now contributing this experience in global health to the broader effort to lessen the death toll from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).

The United Nations General Assembly began its 2013 session September 23 with a view toward setting development goals for the future. The AHA is involved in that discussion, advocating that NCDs should have a place on the health agenda for the future.

“A fundamental focus on combating noncommunicable diseases is, I think, absolutely crucial to human and political and financial development for all nations,” said Dr. Ralph Sacco, who represented the AHA at the U.N. meeting in New York September 23–24. “NCDs are huge drivers to human disability, public health and financial health of multiple nations,” he said in an interview.

Cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), such as heart attacks and stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, are all noncommunicable diseases — long lasting and slow developing. They are the world’s leading killers, by far, the World Health Organization reports, the causes of 63 percent of all deaths.

Two years ago, the United Nations held a special summit to mobilize world efforts to reduce the toll of NCDs. As infectious disease control progresses, NCDs are becoming an even greater hazard, Sacco said, because of increased life spans and broader adoption of unhealthy lifestyles worldwide.

Since 1950, U.S. death rates from CVDs have declined 60 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, representing one of the most important public health achievements of the 20th century. The AHA, in its 90-year history, has made a significant contribution to the lower mortality rate through advocacy of treatment, care, organization of care programs and prevention.

The AHA is among the United States’ leading advocates of physical activity as a way to prevent CVDs.

The AHA’s current prevention strategy is the promotion of Life’s Simple Seven™, Sacco said, which urges individuals to keep key health indicators at reasonable levels and adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Watching blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar, and following advisories about regular physical activity, obesity prevention, a healthy diet and avoiding tobacco, will go a long way to maintaining ideal cardiovascular health.

Sacco said the AHA is promoting this prevention plan through its international membership and activities. The Dallas-based organization has a broad global membership of scientists and practitioners who participate in regular meetings. In other countries, the AHA is building partnerships with locally based cardiac and stroke societies. These efforts are focused most intently now on Brazil, China, India and a number of Middle Eastern nations, Sacco said.

The AHA is also a partner in the Global Cardiovascular Disease Taskforce, which is calling upon world leaders to sustain the momentum in CVD prevention. The AHA joins the World Heart Federation in recognizing World Heart Day September 29.

The AHA’s global emergency cardiac care training programs, which have educated 29 million people in resuscitation techniques in the last two years alone, provide a great beginning to expand the AHA’s outreach.

“That’s an international footprint that we already have,” Sacco said. “We are trying to grow more international alliances now on the prevention side.” Sacco said the AHA is working with international contacts to package the Life’s Simple Seven™ message for international audiences and tailor it to different cultures.

The AHA is also renowned for the Go Red for Women™ campaign, an annual event in February. It has made significant progress in making women more aware of their CVD risk and dispelling the misperception that heart disease is mostly a health risk for men.

The campaign brings together fashion designers, celebrity women and lots of red dresses to reach its audience, and adapting that messaging to women of other nations is a current priority. “These campaigns will have to be tried and adjusted in certain countries,” Sacco said.

Besides his work as a past president of the AHA and a co-chair of its international committee, Sacco, a neurologist, is also involved in international research programs into stroke. He has worked with researchers in India and China to identify the best ways to prevent stroke patients in those countries from having a second stroke soon after their first event. The secondary stroke has a much higher likelihood of causing death and long-term disability.

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