BlogHer Talks to Gordon Tomaselli, President of the American Heart Association

BlogHer Original Post

Many years ago I was eagerly waiting for a visit from my mother, who was flying to California to help me after the birth of my son. Since he was my first, and did not come with a user's manual, I couldn't wait until she arrived to impart the wisdom of motherhood on my nervous and inadequate self. She never made it.

Five days after my son was born, my mom died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. My son grew up having never met his grandmother, a smart and very funny woman. It didn't have to happen. Heart disease is the number one killer of women in America. More women will die of heart disease or stroke than all forms of cancer combined.

The American Heart Association is determined to do something about these dire statistics through their Go Red for Womenprogram promoting heart health and awareness that kicks off every February.


Photo by Tiffany (Flickr).

I was fortunate to interview Dr. Gordon Tomaselli, the president of the American Heart Association so he could tell the women of BlogHer about this important program and other steps that will lead to heart health. We're surrounded by hearts in February anyway, but this message will last a lot longer and provide far greater benefits than a box of chocolates.

BlogHer: February 3rd was National Wear Red day in honor of the AHA’s "Go Red" program What can you tell us about Go Red?

Dr. Tomaselli: It's a campaign that started in the early 2000s to raise awareness about heart disease in women. The month of February is American Heart Month and Go Red for Women is a major campaign during the month. It's targeted at women for number of reasons:

  • Even though heart disease kills more women than any other illness, it is under-recognized.
  • Women are the gate keepers for their family's health.
  • We are going to make gains by preventing the health problems to begin with, through diet, exercise, and avoiding bad habits.

The American Heart Association has been involved with many activities this month to promote awareness. There was a fashion show as part of fashion week in New York with Gloria Esteban and Christie Brinkley. They have a walk-a-thon in NYC. Visiting "the hill" is also an essential part of the mix for the American Heart Association, and Dr. Tomaselli was in DC for a Congressional Go Red discussion.

The AHA has definitely been increasing sponsorships over last year. They've signed with Jenny Craig for the My Heart My Life program.Macy's and Merck have also partnered with the AHA as part of Go Red.

BlogHer: We know that heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S. today, but it's not something that younger women think about often. What is the AHA doing to educate younger women about heart health?

Dr. Tomaselli: The My Heart My Life program with Jenny Craig has Mariah Carey as their ambassador. It's a way to reach out to younger women. The thing that makes the most powerful engagement is finding those who have been touched by heart disease and stroke -- my own mom had a heart transplant at age 49. One of our most vocal advocates on the hill and around the country at events is Star Jones, who had a heart valve replacement.

BlogHer: What are the top things women can do to promote heart health for themselves and their family?

Dr. Tomaselli: Look to what we call "Life's Simple 7":

  • Stop Smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get active
  • Eat better
  • Manage blood pressure
  • Reduce cholesterol
  • Control blood sugar

BlogHer: What about family history of heart disease?

Dr. Tomaselli: You can't choose your genes. But there are certainly things you can do to help the situation The fact that somebody has a bad family history -- that they had heart diseases doesn't mean necessarily that you're going to have it. Most high cholesterol is not passed on as a trait. Grandma and grandpa or your parents may have had some very bad habits. They may have been smoking and overweight and eating eggs every day. Family history is important, but it's important in context.

BlogHer: We know that weight issues correlate to heart health in a big way -- why hasn't science or medicine come up with effective solutions for America's obesity epidemic?

Dr. Tomaselli: Obesity results from complex social, economic, societal behavior. People are much more sedentary today sitting in front of their computers. The U.S. and other parts of the world have obesity problems due to abundance of calories. It turns out the food choices that people make are not the best. High-calorie foods promote weight gain. There are soda vending machines in high schools and elementary schools.

The AHA fully supports Michele Obama's efforts to promote physical activity. We are working with the NFL on a program called Play 60, making sure kids are active for at least 60 minutes per day. We don't have a pill to give you. It really needs to be an issue that relates to caloric balance. You don't have to go from sedentary to an athlete. Incremental stages of exercise can help. Just get started. Be more physically active today than you were yesterday.

BlogHer: What are some of the most hopeful developments you've seen in medicine recently in the field of heart disease?

Dr. Tomaselli: Over the last 50 years we've reduced mortality from heart disease and stroke by about 50 percent. When somebody comes in with a heart attack today the treatment is very different than even 20 years ago. They immediately get the blocked blood vessel that is causing the heart attack open.

There is a huge amount being done to improve people's outcomes. One area that shows promise and possibilities is the use of stem cells. In the prevention area, the development of drugs used to treat high blood pressure and high cholesterol have significantly helped.

BlogHer: What is the main objective you would like to accomplish as president of the American Heart Association?

Dr. Tomaselli: I am focused on advocacy for fundamental research. With the way funding is going, it's at a crisies level. It is driving people out of this profession. Spending in research is making an investment in our own economy. Investment in AHA returns multiple benefits to society.

We've lost a lot of the manufacturing base to other parts of the world. But the kinds of efforts we do in medicine and science builds jobs. Commercialized products are developed. At the end of the tunnel, there is a return [on investment in research] for the stock holders. It's an important piece that people don't recognize.

BlogHer: Any other advice you'd like to pass along to the women of the BlogHer community?

Dr. Tomaselli: I would say that you can be optimistic. Cardiovascular disease is very preventable. Just be aware of your own risk. We would love people to live very long lives. Live at some plateau of optimal health your whole life; live as long and as well as you can. Be aware of what your health factors are. Be aware if you have high cholesterol.

There is absolutely no reason that the vast majority of BlogHer's women can't live a long and healthy life just by doing simple things. And it shouldn't be that a woman has to decide to spend money on one thing instead of affordable care. We feel strongly about the Affordable Care Act, particularly the aspects that involve prevention. We are never going to get there without it. And we have to emphasize heart health from childhood. It's never too early to start thinking about maintaining optimal health.

BlogHer: Any words of encouragement for young people who might be considering a career in science or medicine?

Dr. Tomaselli: A lot has changed but the fundamentals have not. This profession not only engages you intellectually but also allows you to really help people. There are a number of things in science or medicine that people can do. It's a long road but completely fulfilling along the way. The training is life-long and the gratification is life-long. Nothing is more gratifying than discovering something that someone else didn't already know. You will be rich in many more ways than money. I would do it all over again.

BlogHer: Dr. Tomaselli, thank you so much for taking the time to bring us all up to speed on heart health for women. Because of the efforts of the American Heart Association, more women will have the chance to meet their grandchildren someday.

Dr. Gordon F. Tomaselli (MD, FAHA, FACC, FHRS) is the chief of the Division of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins University. In the interest of full disclosure, he is also my former high school classmate from Warwick, NY (go Wildcats!). Hear more from Dr. Tomaselli in this video.

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