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AHA at 90: How Far We've Come, How Much Work Remains

Back then, heart disease was a death sentence. About the only treatment a doctor could offer was bed rest. The medical field couldn't stop, or even slow, the suffering, much less prevent it
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Let's take a trip back in time to the days before wearable technology, before CPR, before heart transplants, before significant modern research into cardiovascular diseases... even before the creation of the American Heart Association.

Back then, heart disease was a death sentence. About the only treatment a doctor could offer was bed rest. The medical field couldn't stop, or even slow, the suffering, much less prevent it.

The first sprig of hope poked through in 1915. Physicians and social workers banded together to try coordinating information about heart disease. Studies began in New York and Boston, with other big cities following. These efforts produced no major breakthroughs, save for the realization that the nation needed a more coordinated approach.

Nearly a decade later, the nation's first concerted fight against heart disease became official. On June 10, 1924, six cardiologists -- two from New York and one each from Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis -- met at a Chicago hotel and launched the American Heart Association.

As we celebrate the organization's 90th anniversary, I'm flooded with awe and appreciation. I marvel at how far we've come, how many lives we've impacted. Because that number is so impossible to calculate, my thoughts turn to individual lives -- to my family and friends who are survivors, and to those I know who are in their 90s, people who have witnessed the miraculous changes in medical science.

I also think of the scientists, medical professionals, dedicated volunteers, supporters and staff who've made the organization's victories possible. That list of victories? Well, as the nation's oldest and largest voluntary organization devoted to fighting cardiovascular diseases and stroke, we have many; I hope you take a few minutes and read more about them here.

The $3.6 billion we've invested in cardiovascular research is a major source of pride, as is our status as the No. 1 funder in this area outside the federal government. The fact those funds have supported 13 Nobel Prize winners, nine of them winning for the work we funded, reinforces our commitment.

In searching for a singular way to frame our impact, this juxtaposition jumped out:

  • In 1950, heart disease killed 356 out of every 100,000 Americans
  • In 2010, heart disease killed 179 out of every 100,000 Americans

While the American Heart Association can't take all the credit, we can -- given our size and scope -- take great pride in the role we played. (A quick aside: We don't want to take all the credit. One of our organization's strengths is a willingness to partner with others to build a healthier world, and we are thrilled when their efforts are recognized. This is why I often share this space with those whose insights offer a broader perspective on valuable subjects.)

Over the years, as the gains against heart disease have piled up, we've evolved from an organization with a singular focus on treatment to an emphasis on prevention and healthy living. We've also intensified our efforts against stroke, the No. 4 killer of Americans, and a disease we know is preventable, treatable and beatable.

Alas, there's also an underlying reality to all this. Heart disease remains the No. 1 killer of Americans, both men and women. In fact, more women die of heart disease each year than men, and more women die of heart disease than from all forms of cancer combined.

You may be asking why this is so. With so many strides made, how can this be?

Well, way too many people still smoke, despite the fact smoking is the No. 1 preventable risk factor for heart disease and doubles the risk of stroke. Way too many people don't control their blood pressure, even though controlling it can lower risks for a host of issues. And, as you've probably heard, our childhood obesity epidemic has today's youth in jeopardy of becoming the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

So, even as we celebrate our 90th anniversary, we know our work is not done. That knowledge is what drives us today -- much like the knowledge that drove our founders to start this organization.

Whenever I reflect on this milestone, I'm stuck by the many similarities between our founders then and our leaders today.

Science remains at the foundation of all we do, and everything we do is powered by the commitment, enthusiasm and knowledge of our volunteers. We strive to not merely make a difference, but to have extraordinary impact. And, above all, we aim to create a culture of health.

Our founders didn't use many of those terms, nor did they utter our mission statement of "building healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke." Still, if they were here today, I have a feeling they would smile wide and offer an anniversary toast in celebration of where we've been, and where we're headed.