Nancy Brown

American Heart Association Celebrating Centennial

From humble beginnings as a small professional health society formed by six cardiologists in Chicago in 1924, the American Heart Association has emerged as the nation’s oldest and largest voluntary organization dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke. Uniting more than 35 million volunteers and supporters and more than 2,900 employees, the Association today is a global force transforming the way the world understands, treats, and prevents cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. In 2024, with Bold Hearts™ – the American Heart Association’s Centennial celebration – the organization celebrates 100 years of progress and a vision for a brighter future for all.

 “One hundred years ago, heart disease was considered a death sentence. Little was known about what caused it and even less about how to care for people living with and dying from it. Dr. Paul Dudley White, one of the American Heart Association’s founders, described those early years as a time of ‘almost unbelievable ignorance’ about heart disease,” said American Heart Association Chief Executive Officer Nancy Brown. “Through our relentless pursuit of lifesaving research, science, and innovation, and our unwavering support of patients, families, and caregivers, we are creating healthier communities everywhere and transforming the way we all live, work, and play, to empower longer, healthier lives.”

 Before the advent of antibiotics, infectious diseases, such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, and diphtheria, were the most common cause of death in the industrialized world. Arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), characterized by blood vessel plaques and thickening of artery walls, first emerged as a leading health threat in the mid-20th century and has remained the #1 killer of people worldwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 “There is much to learn from this historic shift in the reduction of deaths from infectious diseases and the current prevalence in deaths from cardiovascular diseases,” said Joseph C. Wu, M.D., Ph.D., FAHA, the current volunteer president of the American Heart Association, director of the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute and the Simon H. Stertzer Professor of Medicine and Radiology at Stanford School of Medicine. “Through scientific research, technological advances, and public health policy, most of these infectious diseases have become controlled, and many have been or are nearly eradicated. As we apply these same clinical and epidemiological methods to the someday hopeful eradication of heart disease and stroke, the American Heart Association is making great progress. Although still too many people die each year, many are living longer, more productive lives while managing their cardiovascular disease and risk factors.”

The inspiration for the Association’s formation came in 1911 from Mary Wadley, a nurse and social worker at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, who believed more could be done to help people who suffered from heart disease. At that time, heart disease was considered so dire that doctors were reluctant to even tell their patients they had it, according to renowned cardiologist and preeminent scientist Dr. Eugene Braunwald, often called the “father of cardiology.” In the first of a series of special Centennial Collection papers, “Cardiology: A Century of Progress,” published in Circulation, the flagship journal of the American Heart Association, Braunwald writes that it was “recommended that patients with serious heart disease not be informed of this, but that a friend or relative should be.” He also notes other treatments of the times: 

• Recommended therapy for chronic heart disease was extremely limited and consisted of just a few of today’s recommendations – reductions of weight and blood pressure if elevated, and lower salt intake.

• There was no specific treatment if one survived a heart attack other than bed rest, a liquid diet, and general supportive measures.

• While people with high blood pressure were advised to reduce their salt intake and body weight, they were also advised to bathe in tepid water and irrigate the colon once or twice weekly.

“Times have certainly changed over the last century. Bold moves, and dedicated researchers and volunteers, have resulted in significant medical advancements over 100 years, including the first artificial heart valve, implantable pacemakers, cholesterol-lowering medications, techniques for CPR, and much more,” said Marsha E. Jones, current volunteer board chairperson for the American Heart Association and former executive vice president and chief diversity officer for The PNC Financial Services Group Inc. “Even with today’s knowledge, gaps remain, particularly in ensuring health care access and quality care for people in diverse and underrepresented populations. That is why the American Heart Association continues to be a champion for health equity with our ‘10 Commitments.’ Through research, advocacy, community work, and more, these Commitments are designed to ensure we do all we can to remove barriers to health.”

Brown noted that advocacy has been mission-critical in the Association’s work for more than 40 years.

“Our grassroots network includes staff and volunteers in Washington, D.C., every state capital, and in local communities across the country. We have long been a collaborator in convening powerful coalitions and have built an extensive record of bipartisan success informing and influencing the enactment of evidence-based public policies that lead to longer, healthier lives,” she said. “We were early leaders in the fight for successful tobacco-control policies and have been strong advocates for increasing federal research funding at the National Institutes of Health. Our advocacy priorities also include improving access to quality, affordable health care; increasing access to healthy foods; creating opportunities for physical activity; improving air quality; strengthening the public health infrastructure and systems of care; elevating the importance of addressing racism and other social determinants of health through public policy; and continually ensuring state and local governments address the health concerns of their residents.”

Wu noted that rigorous, innovative research has always been at the core of the mission of the American Heart Association.

 “The American Heart Association is recognized as a world leader in advancing groundbreaking research and science,” he said. “Our volunteer experts set the gold standard in patient care through the creation and socialization of research-driven cardiovascular care and CPR guidelines. The Association fosters continuous quality improvement through hospital and health care programs to ensure everyone gets the best possible care – the right care at the right time.” 

Each year at a series of scientific sessions and meetings, the Association convenes thousands of top experts from around the world including dedicated and passionate scientists, clinicians, health professionals, patients, and others to discuss and debate the latest cardiovascular science and clinical information in the fight against heart disease and stroke. Publication in any of the Association’s 14 peer-reviewed scientific journals is synonymous with quality, relevance, and importance in improving the medical knowledge related to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease. 

With more than $5.7 billion invested in cardiovascular medical research since 1949, the American Heart Association is the nation’s largest nongovernment funder of heart and stroke research – second only to the U.S. government. The Association has funded more than 49,000 projects, leading to significant breakthroughs in cardiovascular and stroke discovery, translation, and clinical application. In addition, 15 American Heart Association-funded investigators have won Nobel Prizes, confirming the Association is the focal point for excellence in cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease research. 

“At the heart of everything we do is the powerful commitment of our global family of volunteers, donors, advocates, and survivors. From the early days of the Heart Fund when people went door-to-door to collect donations from neighbors to our record-breaking community Heart Walks, from the generosity of local and national corporate sponsors to the heartfelt philanthropy of our major donors, the financial support given to the American Heart Association over the years has been game-changing,” Brown said. “Just as noteworthy has been the commitment of time, passion, and dedication to our cause given by so many and marked in more ways than we could ever count. ‘Thank you’ seems inadequate and so I want to make a commitment to each person who has made any contribution of any kind to the American Heart Association. As we celebrate our 100th birthday we promise to never stop being a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. As we move into the second century of our work, we are focused on advancing health and hope for everyone, everywhere. Our future is about improving yours.”

Visit throughout 2024 to learn more about how the American Heart Association is harnessing 100 years of saving and improving lives to boldly build a second century of equitable health for all, and read stories about the bold hearts that have inspired, invented, imagined, and informed heart health.