OXFORD — When Dr. Angela Martin took the podium at Oxford Civic Center Friday, the audience likely expected a lecture about eating right and exercising.
Martin provided a slightly different prescription: Stay active, resist despair and vote.
“To the brain, heartbreak, grief and anger look just like heart disease,” Martin said.
Martin was the keynote speaker at the National Day of Red luncheon, held by the local branch of Delta Sigma Theta, an African-American sorority. Held in conjunction with the American Heart Association’s Wear Red Day, it’s an event designed to raise awareness of heart disease. The Oxford event drew a crowd of more than 200, organizers said, people drawn in largely through word of mouth and flyers posted in churches and community centers.
“This is the number one killer of women,” said Marie Rhoden, president of the local Delta Sigma Theta chapter.
Violence, accidents and new diseases like Wuhan coronavirus often attract more attention, but statistics from the Alabama Department of Public Health show that heart disease is by far the top cause of death in the state, claiming about 240,000 lives since 1999. Homicide took about 8,400 lives over the same time, and accidents killed 45,000.
It’s unclear whether the state is making progress in slowing the rate of heart-disease deaths. State numbers show heart disease deaths declining from 1999 to 2007, then rising almost to 1999 levels by 2017. Still, deaths from all causes rose steadily over the same period, possibly the result of an aging population.
The Heart Association’s annual event has supporters wearing red — also one of Delta Sigma Theta’s colors — to call attention to the heart-health issue. At the sorority’s Friday event, red-clad guests attended a health fair, ate a heart-healthy lunch of salad and seafood and, if picked out of the crowd by event organizers, walked a fashion runway to show off their all-crimson fashions.
“I come because I’m a senior citizen, and we’re talking about health information that I need to know,” said Artura Snell, a retired soldier from Anniston.
Martin, the keynote speaker, acknowledged that a lot of people in the crowd likely already knew the basics of avoiding heart disease.
“You drink your water when you drink,” Martin said. “You skip dessert. You follow a basic Mediterranean-type diet to the best of your ability. But it seems that each year, when you go to your doctor, your numbers are not quite where they should be.”
Martin said stress also plays a role in heart disease. And she told the audience, mostly black and mostly female, that the stresses they face are real. She cited pay disparities between men and women. She said many people, in low-paying jobs, don’t have the resources to care for their health in the way doctors so often advise.
“We cannot afford to be sick, but we cannot afford the things we need to stay well,” she said.
She advised the audience to persevere — and to vote, not just in the general election but in the coming March 3 primary. She didn’t name a party or a candidate.
“Some of you may say, well, I’m going to vote in November, but unless you vote in the your state’s primary you will not have a dedicated person on the ballot,” she said.
Martin said she wasn’t there to scold the crowd about fitness.
“When you’re happy, I want you to take a walk around the track,” she said. “When you’re sad, I want you to drink a glass of water. I want you to deliberately have a belly-hurt laugh every day.”
Asked how the group measures the effectiveness of the event, Rhoden noted that the crowd continues to grow.
“They keep coming back every year,” she said.