Do you know the leading cause of death in the United States?

If you said heart disease, you’d be correct. Heart disease has been the #1 cause of death in the U.S. for over a century, and nearly half of all people in the U.S. (47.6%) have some form of cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as high blood pressure, heart failure, or stroke.[1]

Since 1924, the American Heart Association has been working to transform the way the world understands, treats, and prevents cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. In 2024, the organization celebrates 100 years of progress with the vision of advancing health and hope for everyone, everywhere.

In February, for American Heart Month, we’re examining the role each of us can play in creating a world of longer, healthier lives for all. Heart disease is a battle best fought on all sides. From individual education to organizational and system-wide interventions, we must maximize every available channel to prevent, treat, and (eventually) eradicate this threat.

Addressing Individual Health Factors and Behaviors

Lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of heart disease by up to 80%.[2] Better cardiovascular health has also been linked to a lower risk of stroke, cancer, dementia, and other major health problems, supporting a longer, healthier life.[3] The American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8™ model breaks down improving individual cardiovascular health into two major areas: health behaviors and health factors.

Health Behaviors

  • Eat Better: Aim for a healthy eating pattern that includes whole foods, many fruits and vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds, and cooking in non-tropical oils such as olive and canola.
  • Be More Active: Adults should get 2 ½ hours of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week. Kids should have 60 minutes every day, including play and structured activities.
  • Quit Tobacco: The use of inhaled nicotine delivery products—which includes traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vaping—is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., including about a third of all deaths from heart disease. And about a third of U.S. children ages 3-11 are exposed to secondhand smoke or vaping.
  • Get Healthy Sleep: Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Children require more: 10-16 hours for ages five and younger, including naps; 9-12 hours for ages 6-12; and 8-10 hours for ages 13-18. Adequate sleep promotes healing, improves brain function, and reduces the risk of chronic diseases.

Health Factors

  • Manage Weight: Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight has many benefits. Body mass index (BMI), a numerical value of your weight based on your height, is a helpful gauge. Optimal BMI is less than 25, but less than 18.5 is considered underweight. You can calculate it online or consult a health care professional.
  • Control Cholesterol: High levels of non-HDL, or “bad,” cholesterol can lead to heart disease. Your health care professional can consider non-HDL cholesterol as the preferred number to monitor, rather than total cholesterol, because it can be measured without fasting beforehand and is reliably calculated among all people.
  • Manage Blood Sugar: Most of our food is turned into glucose (or blood sugar) that our bodies use as energy. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage your heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves. As part of testing, monitoring hemoglobin A1c can better reflect long-term control in people with diabetes or prediabetes.
  • Manage Blood Pressure: Keeping your blood pressure within acceptable ranges can keep you healthier longer. Levels less than 120/80 mm Hg are optimal. High blood pressure is defined as 130-139 mm Hg systolic pressure (the top number in a reading) or 80-89 mm Hg diastolic pressure (the bottom number).

Organizational Strategies for Prevention and Health Promotion

Up to 80% of someone’s ability to live a healthy life is driven by the social—or nonmedical—drivers of health, the conditions in which people grow, live, and work. While employers cannot control all of these factors, they can impact vital areas such as financial security, education, access to housing and food, and social support. Implementing a comprehensive health and well-being strategy that supports whole-employee health can benefit your overall organizational culture and support a healthy, engaged, and productive workforce.[4] It’s also been linked to better business performance and savings on health care and related costs.[5], [6]

Each year, approximately 10,000 cardiac arrests occur in the workplace. Immediate response, including high quality CPR and the use of an AED, can double or even triple survival rates.[7] Is your organization prepared to save a life?

  • It only takes two steps to save a life: call 911 and push hard and fast in the center of the chest. Share easily accessible Hands-Only CPR Resources within your organization, including the study behind the training, videos, printable resources, and more.
  • For more detailed resources, consider empowering your workforce with CPR and First Aid Workforce Training with Heartsaver® by the American Heart Association. You never know when you’ll need to save a life. Heartsaver ® can help ensure you are ready with various courses designed to prepare you for real-life situations.
  • Did you know that only 50% of people can locate an automated defibrillator (AED) at their workplace? Surprisingly, a national survey showed that about one-third of safety managers said a life had been saved due to proper First Aid, CPR, and AED training provided by their workplace. You have the power to restart a heart; visit AED Implementation to learn more.

Eliminating Disparities Through a Systems-Level Approach

Despite a century of advancements through research, education and advocacy, gaps remain in cardiovascular and other health outcomes due to factors like disparate health care quality and access. That’s why the American Heart Association has committed to championing health equity and removing barriers so that everyone has the opportunity to live a full, healthy life.

Health inequities can be detrimental to a person’s emotional, psychological and physical health and can place a significant economic burden on employers via increased health care costs and reduced productivity and performance. An employee-centric, equity-minded approach can also help strengthen employee engagement and retention, build consumer trust and support talent attraction in today’s competitive market. Recent studies demonstrate how the workplace can serve as a social driver of health, impacting the risk of conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease. Addressing health inequities in the workforce is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do for the sake of your business.

As a key pillar of its Health Equity Impact Goal, the American Heart Association is resourcing employers to be stewards of equitable health by evaluating how organizational policies, practices and cultural norms may perpetuate historic inequities. By prioritizing health equity as a strategic business imperative and embedding it into your mindset, strategy, and operations, you can help create the conditions for better health outcomes for all employees.

A few concrete steps you can take to begin this journey include:

  • Offering comprehensive and affordable health care coverage for all employees
  • Adopting anti-discrimination principles and implementing anti-discrimination policies
  • Ensuring pay equity and promoting a living wage
  • Including equity metrics and indicators in performance processes and evaluations.

The Health Equity Employer Resource Guide, developed by the American Heart Association in collaboration with the Deloitte Health Equity Institute and the SHRM Foundation, offers additional resources and detailed strategies to address health inequities in the workplace.

Join us on the journey to a world of longer, healthier lives for all—starting in your workplace. Additional resources are available through the American Heart Association’s Well-being Works Better™ at heart.org/workforce.

Thank you to WELCOA for letting us share this helpful information with our benefits community. Contributors include Alex Smith, M.B.A Associate Program Manager.


[1] Heart and Stroke Association Statistics | American Heart Association

[2] Lifestyle Strategies for Risk Factor Reduction, Prevention, and Treatment of Cardiovascular Disease

[3] Life’s Essential 8™ Fact Sheet

[4] CDC Increase Productivity

[5] The Stock Performance of American Companies Investing in a Culture of Health – PubMed (nih.gov)

[6] Control Health Care Costs | Model | Workplace Health Promotion | CDC

[7] CPR Facts & Stats

Alex Smith, M.B.A., Associate Program Manager: Mental Health & Workforce Well-being at the American Heart Association

Alex Smith champions mental health and well-being in the workplace. As the associate program manager at the American Heart Association, Alex methodically blends business brilliance with psychological insight. Alex earned a master of business administration degree in social media marketing and is currently pursuing a master of arts degree in psychology. Alex is a visionary strategist, turning marketing techniques into tools for positive change, committed to bridging the gap between business and mental health advocacy. To her, the mission is clear: foster mental health and well-being in the workplace. With a unique blend of skills, a dash of visionary strategy, and a sprinkle of psychology, Alex is dedicated to helping create a healthier, happier work environment.

Guest Contributor

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