Story by Liesel Schmidt | Photography Courtesy of the American Heart Association, Greater Washington Region
The heart. It’s the universal symbol associated with love and one of the most iconic images used for Valentine’s Day—not to mention a frequent player in countless emojis. But far more importantly, the heart is the very source of life, the organ that works so tirelessly in keeping the body functioning, the one that so often gets overlooked until something goes terribly wrong. But all too frequently, even the signs that should put us on high alert are misunderstood or dismissed, excused as a minor issue or “just a little bit of stress” as we go about our daily lives in hopes that if we don’t see it, it’s not there.
Until it’s too late.
For the American Heart Association, making the warning signs known—and, more importantly, heeded—is an integral part of the mission, but so is the life-saving research that brings about advancement in prevention, treatment and cures.
Formed in 1924 by a few pioneering physicians and social workers who believed that heart disease did not have to be a death sentence, the Association has made breakthroughs in life-saving advancements for nearly 100 years. As important as the national organization is, local chapters do the groundwork, reaching people in the community through local initiatives like the Go Red for Women campaign in February during American Heart Month, as well as through other outreach programs that raise awareness.
“The Association has been fighting heart disease and stroke for almost a century,” says Kelly Epps-Anderson, MD, President of the American Heart Association, Greater Washington Region Board of Directors.
“Alongside our supporters, volunteers, community organizations and clinical partners, we have helped millions of families and communities thrive across the globe." - Kelly Epps-Anderson, MD
Since 1949, the Association has invested over $5 billion in research funding, more than any other nonprofit organization except the federal government. Nationally, the Association has reached 12 million people with nutrition resources, trained 22 million in CPR and improved blood pressure screenings for over 19 million. From these efforts, deaths from heard disease dropped by 15.1 percent and deaths from stroke dropped by 13.6 percent since 1949.
“In the greater Washington region, we are linking arms with our supporters, community health centers, region-based organizations and legislators to enact policies and change systems that have an undeniable impact on the places and people right here where we call home,” Epps-Anderson says. “Last year, we made tremendous strides in our local policy by ending the sale of flavored tobacco in Washington, DC. We also helped Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties to pass comprehensive kids’ meal laws, ensuring healthier food and drink options on restaurant menus for children. Through our local schools, we taught 1.8 million families to save a life with Hand-Only CPR in our Kids Heart Challenge.
Additionally, we funded almost $1 million in grants to community organizations and health centers to remove social barriers of health in the areas of food security, mental health, early childhood development and blood pressure education and control. Happily, we’ve gotten back to our in-person events and have been able to bring together thousands of people, connecting them in health and celebration of our cause.”
As great as the impact being made is, there is still an incredibly urgent and critical need for continued scientific discovery. “Around the world, heart disease remains the number one killer of people, and with stroke following as the second,” notes Epps-Anderson. “Despite tremendous advancements, that means that we still lose 17 million people a year.”
Unfortunately, women are at the top of the leader board when it comes to fatalities from heart disease and stroke. In fact, cardiovascular disease is actually the leading cause of death in women, racking up higher numbers than all cancers combined. “Currently, more than 44 percent of women ages 20 and older are living with some form of cardiovascular disease,” says Epps-Anderson. “In addition, women account for more than 57 percent of total stroke deaths and also account for more than 4 million survivors over the age of 20.”
We often delude ourselves into thinking that, if we don’t suffer from any noticeable symptoms, there’s nothing to watch for. After all, we’re living in the 21st century. Hospitals are better, healthcare is more available, technology and science have improved medicine. What do we have to worry about if we live “pretty healthy” lives?
To put it bluntly, plenty. Another disturbing statistic is that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of maternal death in the US. “It can pose a threat to women’s heart health during pregnancy and later in life, making it important that women understand how to care for themselves as well as for their baby,” says Epps-Anderson.
But just why are women so much more susceptible than men? “There are many reasons, but one important factor is mental well-being,” Epps-Anderson explains. “The mental well-being of women has been significantly impacted by the pandemic and more women have reported that their workload increased in the past few years. All of this impacts your heart, even if you don’t realize it.”
As dire as the statistics may be, there are things that can be done to improve heart health and prevent the worst from happening. “What’s good for your mind and body is good for your heart,” says Epps-Anderson. “How you eat, move and manage stress impacts your well-being, physically and mentally, and decreases your risk of cardiovascular disease."
"Go Red is working in communities around the world to help women understand that cardiovascular disease is their greatest health threat and that they should take action to lower their risk." - Kelly Epps-Anderson, MD
“The simple truth is that most cardiovascular diseases can still be prevented with education and healthy lifestyle changes,” she continues. “Improving and maintaining cardiovascular health can help you enjoy a longer, healthier life. Healthy lifestyle has also been associated with decreased risk for stroke, cancer, dementia and other major health problems. Awareness on how lifestyle affects health is critical because we know that small changes can add up to big rewards in one’s health.”
Over the past 18 years, the American Heart Association made focus on women’s heart health a crucial component of their work, creating the Go Red for Women campaign to further that mission. “Go Red is our signature women’s initiative to end heart disease and stroke in women,” says Epps-Anderson. “Go Red is working in communities around the world to help women understand that cardiovascular disease is their greatest health threat and that they should take action to lower their risk. The four pillars of our work include ensuring all women are aware, helping women take charge of their health, closing gender gaps in research and STEM and addressing inequities in access and quality of care. Over the course of the initiative, Go Red has been successful in meeting those objectives and continues to do so. We have funded life-saving women’s research, advanced public health policy, championed closing gender gaps and created a platform for women to address their greatest health risk: cardiovascular disease. Go Red has had a profound impact on women’s health and will continue [to] remove the barriers women face to achieving good health and well-being and continue to be a champion for women and women’s health.”
During the month of February, Epps-Anderson urges women to refocus their priority on heart health—even through small measures. “It’s important to remember that small actions build up to big change over time,” she says. “Good health is a journey, not a destination. Additionally, all women need to be aware that cardiovascular disease is their greatest health threat. They can take action by knowing their numbers as well as their family history and take charge of their mental and physical health. Advocating is also a powerful action to take. Significant disparities persist for women, particularly women of color, in access to quality care, representation in research and bystander CPR. We also encourage all women to learn life-saving techniques. A woman is less likely to receive CPR from a bystander than a man is, so be the heartbeat for a woman you love by becoming a life-saver and learning Hands Only CPR.”
As a non-profit, the Association depends on funding it receives through event participation, corporate sponsorship and personal donations. “We rely on our supporters to bring our mission and our work to life,” says Epps-Anderson. “Investment in our life-saving mission allows us to continue to save lives and to transform communities. Donation helps us fund life-saving research, advocate for healthier communities, improve patient care and work for equitable health for all people. There truly is something for everyone to get involved locally with the American Heart Association, Greater Washington Region. There are many ways to support by learning more about your own health, sharing resources, learning hands-only CPR, volunteering on a committee, having your company sponsor, donating and taking part in our campaigns and digital experiences.”
“During American Heart Month each February, the nation comes together, igniting a wave of red from coast to coast..."
Throughout the year, the American Heart Association hosts events including An Affair of the Heart Luncheon & Fashion Show as well as many educational opportunities through Go Red for Women in February. In March, they host their annual Heart Ball, a beautiful black-tie affair, with a golf tournament, the Heart’s Delight Wine Tasting & Auction and the Lawyers Have
Heart 10K, 5K and Fun Walk in May. Each November, they host their largest event, the Heart Walk on the National Mall. “All year long, we have opportunities for people to get together and celebrate the mission and we consider our supporters like family!” says Epps-Anderson. “Our aim is to connect people united in our mission to save and improve lives through spectacular events, life-saving education opportunities and so much more.”
Over the past four years, VIP Alexandria Magazine has celebrated Go Red for Women by featuring the Red Ladies issue in February. “During American Heart Month each February, the nation comes together, igniting a wave of red from coast to coast,” says Epps-Anderson. “From landmarks to news anchors and neighborhoods to online communities, this annual groundswell unites millions of people for a common goal: the eradication of heart disease and stroke. We are so honored that VIP has showcased the Go Red for Women campaign through the brilliant Red Ladies issue! VIP is an important platform to reach new audiences and raise awareness of our work across the greater Washington region.”