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Improving Our Nation's Health, Community by Community

While heart disease and stroke are major threats forAmericans, certain segments of our population are hit the hardest.
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When many of us were growing up, we didn't wear seat belts. Hearty family meals included lots of red meat and butter. And if you remember black-and-white TV, you also may remember doctors endorsing cigarettes.

Likewise, today's youth will one day find many things about their childhood unfathomable. When they do, I hope they will be struck by an overall improvement in the health of our nation.

A vital way to speed that progress is by recognizing that while heart disease and stroke are major threats for all Americans, certain segments of our population are hit the hardest. For instance, research shows African-Americans are disproportionately affected by high blood pressure and stroke, and Hispanic-Americans are disproportionately affected by diabetes.

These are among many health disparities connected to race, ethnicity, gender and other factors. These gaps can stem from disadvantages such as poverty, inadequate health care access and educational inequalities. A harsh truth is that the most disadvantaged in society also often have the greatest need for preventive screenings and other health programs, yet have the least access to them. Moving forward, this can become even more of a crisis because these traditionally-underserved populations are growing.

The fact we've identified and targeted these issues is where hope for improvement begins. As a nation, we must treat those already afflicted and work toward controlling and preventing these problems. Research, programs and awareness campaigns of today are seeds that, if properly nurtured, will sprout solutions.

High blood pressure among African-Americans is one area where we can -- and must -- narrow the gap.

The latest statistics show that 44 percent of all African-Americans have high blood pressure -- 47 percent of females, 43 percent of males. Those figures are among the highest rates of any population in the world and far above the roughly 33 percent for whites. The consequences are huge, too.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure is considered a "silent killer" because the lack of symptoms masks the damage being done to arteries, the heart and other organs. Left untreated, high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) can lead to various forms of heart disease, stroke, kidney damage and more. Studies show that among people whose blood pressure is higher than 140/90:

  • About 69 percent have a first heart attack,
  • 74 percent have congestive heart failure,
  • 77 percent have a first stroke.

Sadly, this is not a new issue. However, there are new tools in the fight, from the annual physicals that will soon be covered under the Affordable Care Act to campaigns such as "Check. Change. Control.," a community program launched this summer by the American Heart Association. The program uses volunteer health mentors to motivate participants to self-monitor their blood pressure and to upload and track their readings in Heart360, the American Heart Association's free Web-based tool. The national rollout builds on a successful pilot program called "Check It, Change It" in Durham County, N.C.

The early results are encouraging. Grants initially were provided to 18 top markets and have since been expanded to 90 programs in 60 markets, including Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia. The goal is to enroll 30,000 African-Americans by the end of 2014, and we are nearly halfway there.

Participants are already showing an overall decrease in blood pressure, especially for those who started out with high blood pressure (that danger zone of 140/90 and above outlined earlier) and uploaded at least two readings per month for four consecutive months. Those particular participants saw drops of 27/10.5 in their readings.

Because each community is unique, the program is customizable. They can be organized in conjunction with local health care providers and local businesses -- such as Zumba classes in Richmond, Va. Other examples include corporations and faith-based settings.

The American Heart Association strives to meet people where they are, and faith-based settings are a reliable gathering point. People come with open hearts and minds, making them potentially more receptive to recommendations for adopting a healthier lifestyle. This is why our vision for Empowered To Serve includes this guiding principle: "To transform environments through the creation of a sustainable culture of health in multicultural communities."

Every generation strives to leave the world a better place than they found it. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'" As long as we continue to identify and target the problems that plague all Americans, we will fulfill our obligation to this generation, and those to come.