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North Hills Monthly

American Heart Association Provides Education, Outreach to Battle Cardiovascular Disease

Jan 29, 2019 12:13PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

National Wear Red Day

Cardiovascular disease is pervasive in this country: it is listed as the underlying cause of death in one out of every three deaths, and it claims more lives than cancer. There are more than 92 million Americans living with some form of cardiovascular disease. While those are eye-opening statistics, the good news is that 80 percent of cardiovascular disease is preventable with lifestyle changes.

In honor of American Heart Month, we spoke with Debbie Banks, the executive director for the American Heart Association, Greater Pittsburgh Region, about the organization’s health initiatives.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): What is the main mission of the American Heart Association (AHA)?

Debbie Banks (Banks): Our mission is to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. What we do is try to improve people’s health. Cardiovascular disease is the leading global cause of death, so everything we’re doing is to fight heart disease and stroke. One of our big focus areas is equitable health for all; if we improve people’s health, reduction of death follows. Locally we partner with other community organizations to lower blood pressure, focus on healthy cooking on a budget, and train local students how to do CPR.

NHM: What are some misconceptions about cardiovascular disease?

Banks: One of the things that people don’t realize is that heart disease is the number one killer of women. The statistics show that 1/3 of women will be affected by heart disease, which is pretty staggering. And it really doesn’t discriminate among people. Most people think of heart disease as relating to your grandfather, but it affects kids and adults. The biggest thing is that 80 percent of heart disease is preventable.

NHM: What are some lifestyle changes that the AHA recommends to reduce the risk of heart disease?

Banks: It is easier for people to take a pill than to change a lifestyle habit, but we have a model called Life’s Simple Seven to focus on ways to improve heart health. These are all things within our control. These include:

1. Physical activity—we recommend 60 minutes for a child, and adults should exercise at least 150 minutes a week.

2. No smoking

3. Manage your blood pressure

4. Control your cholesterol

5. Reduce blood sugar

6. Eat a healthy diet. We started a campaign called Add Color:  the more color you have in your diet, the healthier it probably is. If you add spinach, tomatoes and carrots to a meal of steak and potatoes, you’ve just added a level of health to it. 

This isn’t ‘you need to get healthy and run a marathon,’ but how do we get you to move more, to eat more veggies in a day? It’s a full lifestyle change.

7. Lose weight, which is tied into healthy eating. We all know about the obesity epidemic in our country.

Regarding cholesterol and blood pressure, we are currently partnering with other community organizations to help people manage their numbers with our program called Check. Change. Control.® Knowledge is power—that’s why we urge people to know their numbers so they can take control of their health. You are your own best advocate.

NHM: What are the signs and symptoms of heart disease, and when should someone seek help?

Banks: Most people have heard about arm discomfort and pressure in the chest, but there are other symptoms that people may not be familiar with, such as nausea and vomiting, jaw and neck pain, and shortness of breath. Of course, on any given day, we can get lightheaded or short of breath by running up the stairs, but you know your body. If it’s not normal, you need to dial 911. There is nothing embarrassing about going to the ER and not having a heart attack.

NHM: Tell me about American Heart Month and what events are happening in Pittsburgh to commemorate it.

Banks: In 1963, Congress officially recognized the need to focus more on heart health; President Lyndon Johnson issued a proclamation annually designating February as American Heart Month.

February 1 is National Wear Red Day—a day we focus on to ensure that women know heart disease is the #1 killer, so they can make strides to change whatever they need to change. We try to turn the city red, and this is a nationwide initiative.

On Feb 1, we are going to be at the Block at Northway from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.  with Melanie Taylor from 100.7. If you are downtown, we’ll be at US Steel tower with UPMC doing free biometric health screenings with prizes and special guests. It’s like a souped-up health fair with fun prizes.

March 2 is the annual Pittsburgh Heart Ball, which will be celebrating its 30-year anniversary. This is our premier fundraising event that highlights lifesaving advancements in cardiovascular research. A local innovator in cardiovascular medicine is given the prestigious Pulse of Pittsburgh award each year, and we recognize the extraordinary work of nurses with the Mary Ann Scully Excellence in Nursing award. 

April is “Move More Month.” It’s not about running a marathon, but about how do we move more with messaging around, ‘Can you spare 10 minutes to take a fast walk?’ Three of those a day equals quality exercise.

May 17 is our Go Red for Women annual luncheon where we focus on key areas to support the fight against women and heart disease. May is also Stroke Awareness Month, and June is CPR Awareness Month.

NHM: What are some ways that the public can get involved to support the AHA?

Banks: Volunteers drive our mission through engagement at every level of our organization. You can go to to learn more about the initiatives of the American Heart Association and to find out about volunteer opportunities or ways to donate. 

NHM: Speaking of donating, how much money has the American Heart Association raised?

Banks: We raised about $4 million in southwestern Pennsylvania from our core fundraising events. Our Go Red For Women movement strictly funds women’s heart and brain health education and research, which is why it was created 15 years ago; we realized that we needed a stronger focus on educating women that heart disease is the #1 killer.

The American Heart Association funds lifesaving research. In fact, we are second only to the federal government in funding heart/stroke-related research. But we don’t only fund heart and stroke research—we are currently funding a project on heart health and how the effects of chemotherapy drugs impact the heart. We fund research on diabetes, because people who have diabetes are at high risk for heart issues. So many diseases are interconnected, so we do a lot of collaboration with other organizations.