Over the course of nearly 100 years, the American Heart Association (AHA) has maintained a commitment to fighting heart disease and stroke by educating health professionals and the general public about the best ways to improve cardiovascular health. The organization’s work is also largely focused on supporting and advancing cardiovascular research. Since its inception in 1924, the AHA has invested over $4.1 billion into research projects and initiatives, which is more than any other US-based nonprofit organization.
Over the years, the AHA’s funding has supported a number of research breakthroughs in the areas of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease. Many of these research breakthroughs have helped to improve global health by advancing understanding and/or treatment of heart- and vascular-related issues. In order to provide a better understanding of the AHA’s impact on health care worldwide, here is a brief look at 10 groundbreaking research projects that were backed by funding from the AHA:
Study on Diuretics and Blood Pressure
In 1949, AHA-funded research helped Dr. Alfred Farah to pioneer the study of how diuretics affect heart and kidney function. His research into diuretics, which help to control blood pressure by ridding the body of excess water and sodium, led to advancements in the pharmacological treatment of heart disease. Diuretics are still considered one of the best classes of drugs for controlling blood pressure and treating heart failure.
Research on Dietary Fat and Cholesterol
Before the 1950s, there was little understanding of the link between dietary fat and serum cholesterol levels. This changed after the AHA backed research led by Dr. Ancel Keys, a physiologist who spearheaded what has become known as the Seven Countries Study. The study linked fat and cholesterol for the first time and led to dietary recommendations that remain in place today.
The earliest advancements in pacemaker technology and research were supported by the AHA. In 1957, Dr. William Weirich used the first pacemaker to treat a patient with heart blockage. His work on early battery-operated wearable pacemakers led to the creation of today’s fully implanted pacemaker devices.
Artificial Heart Valves
In addition to pacemakers, the AHA helped to support the advancement of artificial heart valves, which were first developed by Dr. Albert Starr and Lowell Edwards. The pair’s work in the 1960s has had long-lasting effects. Over the years, the Starr-Edwards valve, which is still used today to help people with diseased heart valves, has saved millions of lives.
Widely known as the fathers of CPR, physicians James Jude, Guy Knickerbocker, and William Kouwenhoven pioneered the use of external cardiac massage with the support of AHA funding. Research into the lifesaving potential of CPR was first reported in 1961 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Advancement of Microsurgery
Used across a range of surgical disciplines, microsurgery was first performed by Dr. Julius Jacobson in the early 1960s. His work, which was funded in part by the AHA, has led to widespread advancements in surgical practices.
The Work of Biochemist Mildred Cohn
For 14 years, the AHA provided funding to support the research activities of Mildred Cohn, the AHA’s first female career investigator. Cohn was a pioneer in the use of new technologies to study and measure organic chemical changes. Her work as a biochemist contributed greatly to the understanding of nuclear magnetic resonance. It also led to the development of new medical technologies, including nuclear magnetic resonance, which remains one of the most advanced imaging methods in use today.
Blood Pressure Research
With the help of AHA funding, Dr. Maurice Sokolow led a 20-year study that examined the effects of high blood pressure. The results of his study, which were published in 1966, showed that chronic high blood pressure reduces one’s life expectancy and can lead to various complications affecting the heart and other areas of the body. Dr. Sokolow also designed and built one of the first portable blood pressure recorders, which helped to advance later blood pressure studies.
Children’s Heart Health
In 1990, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug to treat respiratory distress syndrome, which affects premature infants with defects of the heart and lungs. The drug, Exosurf Neonatal, was developed by Dr. John Clements, who served as an AHA Career Investigator for decades. In later years, the AHA continued its work in the area of children’s heart health by partnering with the Children’s Heart Foundation to provide $22.5 million for research into congenital heart defects.
Study on Oxygen and Physiology Function
Over the years, the AHA has supported several researchers who went on to earn the Nobel Prize for their work. One of the most recent is Dr. Gregg L. Semenza, a John Hopkins University researcher who received the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discoveries related to the interplay between cell metabolism, physiological function, and oxygen availability. Since 1993, Dr. Semenza’s Nobel Prize-winning work has been supported by funding from the AHA.
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