AHA, RWJF team up to turn the tide
In mid-November, the American Heart Association (AHA) and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) jointly announced a collaborative effort to turn the tide on the childhood obesity epidemic in America by 2015.
“It’s a lofty goal but an important goal … and a goal the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and AHA have been working toward for a number of years,” Nancy Brown, CEO of the American Heart Association, said of the ambitious objective.
Brown said the two national organizations have a long-standing collaborative relationship so it made sense to join forces on this issue, which is critical to the future of the nation’s health. The AHA and RWJF have elected to focus on policy interventions to advance the six priorities that research has shown to be likely to have the greatest impact on childhood obesity.
“We really need to accelerate our work around advocacy and public policy so we can have systemic changes that can be foundational to our future success,” Brown said of the emphasis on influencing local, state and federal policy.
Brown referred to the priorities as hubs and explained the AHA would develop the overarching strategy and be the lead advocacy organization for all six. Additionally, AHA is funding three hubs:
- Improving the nutritional quality of snack foods and beverages in schools,
- Protecting children from unhealthy food and beverage marketing, and
- Reducing consumption of sugary beverages.
RWJF is directly investing $8 million initially to fund activities for the other three hubs, which address concerns in underserved communities:
- Increasing access to affordable, healthy foods,
- Increasing access to parks, playgrounds, walking trails, bike paths and other opportunities to be physically active, and
- Helping schools and youth programs increase children’s physical activity levels.
“Some cities and states are starting to see progress in their efforts to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and CEO for RWJF. “As a country, we’re gaining a better sense of what changes work, and now it’s time to make those changes in every community.”
As to why the AHA should take the lead on this public health issue, Brown said you have to look no further than the current statistics and her organization’s mission to see the latter cannot be achieved unless the former changes dramatically.
The AHA’s mission is to build healthier lives free of cardiac disease and stroke, she said. However, more than 23.5 million children and adolescents in the United States … nearly one-third of the nation’s youth … are overweight or obese, which puts them at heightened risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and a host of other diseases and conditions.
“Overweight children have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight adults,” she continued, adding the research shows that risk jumps to 80 percent when one or both parents are also overweight or obese.
On the flip side, Brown said there are seven factors that create ideal cardiovascular health. Those factors include six ‘dos’ – achieve or maintain a lean body mass index, an appropriate level of physical activity, healthy diet, normal blood pressure, optimal cholesterol level, and controlled blood sugars … and one big ‘don’t’ – no smoking.
Citing findings from the landmark Framingham Heart Study, Brown said, “If a person can reach the age of 50 with all seven factors falling in the ideal category, their chance of dying of heart attack and stroke is almost non-existent over the next 40-50 years.”
That said, she added the habits … either good or bad … that impact those seven areas are generally developed very early in life. “Most children are born in ideal health,” Brown noted. Unfortunately, she continued, the environment and culture surrounding America’s youth too often leads to the development of bad habits that persist throughout adulthood.
“Both the American Heart Association and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation recognized how extremely important it would be to initiate policy activity and advocacy that could change the environment around people to provide our children and adults a fighting chance to have a healthier life,” Brown said of the impetus to launch this new initiative.
With big change, however, often comes big pushback. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made headlines when she referred to proposed revisions to Pennsylvania’s school nutrition guidelines that would limit the number of sweets allowed as a “nanny state run amok.” The 2012/13 school year saw the debut of new school lunch guidelines for the first time in 15 years. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act not only called for more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, but it also set age-based calorie limits, which sparked protests from parents and students, alike.
Despite this, Brown said, “We believe strongly that what parents and communities want more than anything are healthy, happy children and families.”
She pointed to the increase in high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes in children … conditions that used to be considered ‘adults only’ health threats … as reason enough to retool the way the country approaches nutrition and physical activity.
“Unless someone takes a bold stand to advocate on behalf of children, we’ll continue to see rising levels of adult diseases and risk factors in our children,” she stated.
Brown also pointed out the battle against childhood obesity isn’t the first time the AHA has tackled a tough lifestyle issue and found success. The American Heart Association was instrumental, along with numerous other organizations, in seeing sweeping policy changes implemented around the behavioral issue of tobacco usage.
“We will take the learnings from our work in tobacco and bring those to our work on childhood obesity,” she said. Brown noted that a number of policy changes surrounding tobacco, including higher taxes on packs of cigarettes and clean air laws in public spaces, actually had a remarkably quick impact in decreasing smoking rates and in dissuading potential new smokers from embarking on the habit.
She hopes to see a similar trend in childhood obesity over the next two years. “If we can flatten the rate of growth or have no growth, we will consider ourselves successful,” she concluded.