Compass: Run Saturday for strong hearts

The Alaska Heart Run is a spring rite in Anchorage, marking the first time in spring when we can actually run around outside without snow gear. More importantly, the Run raises money for the American Heart Association (AHA), the single largest organization dedicated to improving lives through cardiovascular research.

You may know that, as an American, heart disease is the single biggest threat to your survival. This has been true in the U.S. for most of the last century. The good news is that your odds of surviving heart disease have never been better, thanks in large part to the AHA. The same scientific method that saw you through your grade school science project is at work in human medicine. Scientific studies of new therapies, from the molecular level up to the population level, have resulted in treatments that dramatically improve your odds.

Take congestive heart failure, for example. People with heart failure cannot pump enough blood through their bodies to maintain health. This problem affects approximately 6 million more Americans each year and has had a mortality rate worse than many cancers. In the short time since I started medical school, (OK, 20 years), seven important interventions have been identified to treat this disorder, resulting in up to a 90 percent reduction in mortality within the first two years of diagnosis.

Coronary artery disease is very common in the U.S., related to buildups and blockages in the very arteries that feed the heart muscle. If an artery becomes blocked suddenly, the muscle downstream is starved for blood, resulting in a scarred and weakened heart. Coronary disease is the most preventable form of heart disease. Lifestyle interventions (stopping smoking, exercising regularly, and consuming a plant and fish-based diet) can substantially reduce risk. Medical intervention with blood pressure medicines, anticoagulants, statin drugs, and beta-blockers can further reduce risk in susceptible patients. Many patients who would have required open-heart bypass surgery twenty years ago are now treated routinely with stents placed through the leg or the wrist.

Many heart valve disorders that previously required open surgery with valve replacement can now be managed with valve repair. The past decade has seen stent-based valve replacements that don't require the chest to be opened at all.

Heart rhythm disorders can lead to sudden death and disability from heart dysfunction or stroke. Some of the computer graphic technologies developed for video games are used daily to electrically map the inside of the human heart to allow us to cure heart rhythm problems on an outpatient basis. Sudden death risk can now be reduced with medications and defibrillator therapy, a now commonplace treatment that was considered a pipe dream just a few decades ago.

Prevention and treatment of stroke continues to improve, with better medications and the potential for acute intervention and reversal. Imagine having a clot sucked out of a blood vessel in your brain and regaining sensation and movement in a limb. What an exciting time we live in.

It's interesting to reflect that most of the current life-extending treatments in cardiology have been developed and proven over the past few decades. These developments are the product of a tremendous amount of work by thousands of investigators, spread out over many miles and years. The Heart Run supports these efforts.

Your best shot at avoiding cardiovascular disease is to stay away from cigarettes, eat a plant and fish-based diet, and choose an active lifestyle. With any luck, you'll never need any help for your heart. On the other hand, it's good to know that Alaskans, through the Heart Run, are helping to develop better therapies should you ever need them.

Many thanks to the volunteers and thousands of runners who participate in this special event.

Dr. Steven Compton, an East High graduate, earned his M.D. at the University of Washington and is a member of the Alaska Heart Institute, the presenting sponsor of the Alaska Heart Run.