By Laura L. Acosta
UTEP News Service
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among Hispanics living in the United States.
High blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking tobacco, excessive body weight and physical inactivity are all risk factors for heart attack and stroke.
Researchers at UTEP’s College of Health Sciences in the Department of Public Health Sciences are attempting to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in Hispanics along the U.S.-Mexico border through a community based participatory research project known as HEART — Health Education Awareness Research Team.
“We want our participants to take advantage of this culturally appropriate program so they can engage in activities that could benefit their health,” said Maria Duarte-Gardea, Ph.D., professor of public health sciences and the project’s principal investigator. Duarte works in collaboration with co-principal investigator Hector Balcazar, Ph.D, regional dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, School of Public Health, El Paso Regional Campus.
HEART is a two-stage, eight-year program that combines physical activity and nutrition education to increase cardiovascular health awareness in El Paso.
The first phase was a three-year pilot program that ran from 2003-05 and involved UTEP, the University of Texas at Houston School of Public Health, Centro San Vicente and El Paso Community College.
In 2008, the program was awarded a five-year, $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health through the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities to begin the second phase, which welcomed two new partners: the YWCA El Paso del Norte Region and the City of El Paso Parks and Recreation Department.
“The main purpose is to build strong partnerships with these organizations to implement a program that includes existing physical activity programs in coordination with nutrition education aimed at reducing cardiovascular diseases,” Duarte said.
At the heart of the project are three community health workers, or promotoras de salud, who promote heart healthy lifestyles through fitness activities at the YWCA and at the city’s parks and recreation centers, and a nutrition education program called Mi Corazon, Mi Comunidad that teaches participants healthy eating habits.
“It is important to have a community health worker who can communicate directly with participants and teach them how to take care of their health,” Duarte said.
The program has enrolled more than 300 participants who live in the 79905 zip code, one of El Paso’s low-income areas.
Cohorts begin every six weeks and participants receive a menu of activities from zumba classes, water aerobics and walks in the park to nutrition classes and trips to the grocery store where they learn how to read food labels.
They keep track of their progress in a health passport, and after they complete 30 activities, they receive incentives such as a pedometer, T-shirt, apron, recipe book, tote bag or exercise CD.
Promotora Patricia Diaz has seen how HEART has motivated participants to change their lifestyles.
“People who did not exercise are now exercising daily,” she said. “They are cutting fat and sodium from their diets and all of this is helping us prevent cardiovascular disease in Hispanics.”
Participants also report that by eating better, they are controlling their weight and diabetes, Duarte said.