A UNC professor is reaching out to help in Lenoir County, by offering a program that will provide ways to alleviate risks of strokes and many other cardiovascular diseases.

Alice Ammerman is a professor of nutrition in public health and director of Carolina’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. She explains that Lenoir County is part of what is known as the “stroke belt.”

“The ‘stroke belt’ is a term that has been used to describe largely the southeastern coastal area of the United States, where there is a very high rate of cardiovascular disease and stroke in particular,” says Ammerman. “Diet has something to do with it, and also it tends to be areas with fairly low income levels, which tends to be associated with higher rates of many chronic diseases.”

She says that cardiovascular diseases applies to anything that affect the blood vessels and heart muscles that can be affected by diet and physical activity, including heart attacks and strokes.

She set out on her mission in Lenoir County and spoke with the county’s health officials to see what could be done about the rising rates of heart-related risks. Together, they developed the community program known as Heart Healthy Lenoir.

“The focus is multidimensional,” says Ammerman. “We have a genetic component, a primary care practice component, and then more of a community lifestyle change component, all three aimed at trying to understand more about how we can help North Carolinians in the ‘stroke belt’ reduce their risk for heart disease and stroke.”

The program is funded by the National Institutes of Health and works in collaboration with East Carolina University, and the HPDP. The program hires locally, and is currently working out of almost 100 counties to make lasting changes to health and wellness. The studies conducted have yielded positive changes in blood pressure and weight loss for the more than 650 people that have participated.

Ammerman and her team want to make sure that they are not portrayed as the “diet police,” but rather as making minor lifestyle changes. She has worked to develop new heart-healthy hushpuppy and barbeque recipes to prove that people do not have to completely give up foods they love, but simply make more mindful decisions about how it is made and how it is consumed.

As the results of the program begin to make their way in, Ammerman and her team are already seeing the beginnings of a newer, healthier Lenoir County.

“It appears that things are going in the right direction in terms of high blood pressure,” says Ammerman. “Some benefits in terms of weight, people are reporting better diets. A lot of individuals have made some significant changes. We think it’s a success that people are willing to try new foods.”

The team hopes that before the funding of their project runs out, the communities across North Carolina that they have worked so closely with will take to heart all that they have learned to make better, healthier decisions for the future.

For more information on the project, click here.