It began in June 1924 with six cardiologists who wanted to change what one of them called “an unbelievable ignorance about heart disease.”
Since then, the American Heart Association has grown into an international organization with more than 35 million volunteers and supporters and 144 local offices throughout the United States.
Since 1990, the AHA Lowcountry has been a growing presence and voice for people in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties to improve their heart health and reduce death from cardiovascular disease and stroke.
“So far, we have funded more than $23 million at the Medical University of South Carolina USC Health here in Charleston,” said Katie Schumacher, executive director of AHA Lowcountry. “Our main priorities are research, education and advocacy.”
All of these priorities are aimed at helping reverse a trend of declining health. For example, heart disease has been the No. 1 cause of death in the United States since 1921. Globally, AHA estimates that nearly 18.6 million people died of cardiovascular disease in 2019 – a 17.1% increase over the previous decade.
Over the next few years, medical experts expect cardiovascular disease to grow exponentially, both from the effects of COVID and poor daily behaviors.
“Unhealthy eating habits, increased consumption of alcohol, lack of physical activity and the mental toll of quarantine isolation and even fear of contracting the virus all can adversely impact a person’s risk for cardiovascular health,” said Salim S. Virani, M.D., and associate professor in cardiology and cardiovascular research sections at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
He added that heart health can be vastly improved with a simple change in diet and everyday lifestyle. And to this end, AHA Lowcountry is replete in their daily offerings, which include:
- CPR education, which in 2021 alone trained thousands of local residents in this lifesaving skill.
- The annual Lowcountry Heart Walk, which raised more than $1 million in 2022. “Our goal for 2023 is also $1 million,” Schumacher said. “And thanks to our sponsors and volunteers, we’re already halfway to reaching it.”
- The annual Charleston Heart Ball, which serves to address health disparities in area communities.
- The annual Go Red for Women Luncheon, dedicated to wiping out heart disease as the number one killer of women.
- Working with Charleston County Public Libraries in Edisto, McClellanville and Hollywood to implement a self-monitoring blood pressure cuff loaner program.
“Library patrons will have the opportunity to meet with CCPL’s community health worker, who can refer them to a clinic for primary and follow-up care,” Schumacher said.
Keep Your Heart in Tip Top Shape
The American Heart Association recommends following these eight simple steps to keep your heart healthy:
1- Eat healthy – This includes whole foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds and cooking in nontropical oils such as olive and canola.
2- Quit tobacco – Traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vaping are the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.
3- Get more sleep – If you’re an adult, the time-honored rule of seven to nine hours per day still holds true.
4- Be more active – Regardless of your age, go out and play.
5- Maintain the right body weight – It will help avoid obesity and unnecessary fat.
6- Monitor and control your cholesterol.
7- Manage, control and improve your blood pressure.
8- Manage, control and improve your blood sugar.
“Doing these eight things gives a much better chance of not only living longer but enjoying it more because your heart won’t be saddled from stress and other unhealthy factors,” said Dr. Daniel Lackland, professor of epidemiology at the Medical University of South Carolina. “Of course, individual outcomes may be different due to their genetics and makeup. But it’s still your best chance.”
And there is one other thing, though it’s optional: Become an AHA volunteer. After all, it’s hard to keep bad habits when you’re around people and events that encourage better hearts.
“We’re trying to make as much of a difference as possible in helping people lead longer and healthier lives,” said Katie Schumacher, executive director at AHA Lowcountry. “That’s our mission, and everyone involved is doing anything they can to make that happen.”
By L. C. Leach III