The Ohio State University Alumni Association

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Work close to her heart

Brenda Houston Baird ’92 has helped raise more than $200 million for the American Heart Association over the past 30 years. Learn what inspires her to advocate for heart health.

The summer before her senior year at Ohio State, Brenda Houston Baird ’92 lost her mother to a massive heart attack. Out of that intense personal tragedy, a new purpose arose. When it came time for her to choose an internship, the journalism major pursued a communications role with the American Heart Association (AHA).

Over the next three decades, Houston Baird would emerge as a formidable force in the battle against heart disease and stroke. Now, in her new role as the AHA’s national vice president for corporate relations, she continues that battle in collaboration with the nonprofit’s corporate partners.

With the AHA’s Central Ohio Heart Walk coming up Aug. 21, Houston Baird recently sat down with Ohio State Alumni Magazine to talk about heart health, her personal motivations and the role Ohio State played in her career success.

How did your Ohio State experience lay a foundation for impact at the American Heart Association?

As a journalism student, I learned the art of being curious, asking questions and placing a high value on diversity of thought. This mindset has served me well throughout my career. I also have really come to appreciate the fierce loyalty of Ohio State alumni all around the country. That shared connection has opened more doors than I can count.

What motivates you to go to work every day?

There hasn’t been a day in my career that I haven’t been moved by stories of survival and stories of loss. Very recently, a close family friend — a 50-year-old husband and father of two — died from a massive heart attack. That’s an everyday occurrence. Heart disease impacts one out of every two Americans. My goal has always been to talk to as many people as I can to spread awareness and invite them to join the effort to reduce death caused by heart disease and stroke. Now, in my new role, I have an opportunity to come alongside national organizations and help them build impactful programs in pursuit of employee health and wellness. My main objective is to help bring to life the science that gives families more time with the ones they love.

What do you wish every American knew about heart health?

Heart disease and stroke are the No. 1 and 5 killers in America, respectively. Know your numbers, know your family history and be your own advocate. At 40, I was diagnosed with one of the seven major risk factors of heart disease: hypertension. Thankfully, it’s easy to treat with a daily medication and behavioral modification. It’s all about making small daily changes that add up to big results.

What are some of the links between COVID-19 and heart health?

COVID-19 can cause serious heart complications and strokes in otherwise healthy people, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about its short- and long-term effects on heart health. The AHA is working to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in our community by encouraging people to get vaccinated and to keep their wellness exams so that chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes are adequately managed.

What are the primary social determinants that drive disparities in heart health, and what are some ways the AHA works toward change?

In the U.S., health is heavily influenced by zip code. Many communities lack access to healthy food, high-quality health care, reliable transportation and physical activity. All of these social determinants of health increase risk factors for heart disease and stroke and create toxic stress. The AHA’s new 2024 Impact Goal is focused on removing barriers to health care through pioneering new research and spreading awareness in at-risk communities.

What is the purpose of the annual Heart Walk?

Our annual Heart Walk is designed to raise funds and celebrate progress in the fight against heart disease and stroke. It’s fun, noncompetitive and family-friendly. We’ve been incredibly grateful for the interest and support from the Ohio State community in the past, and we don’t expect this year to be any different!

You can join the effort by registering for the 2021 Central Ohio Heart Walk on Aug. 21.

About the author

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Ashley Rabinovitch

Ashley Rabinovitch is a brand journalist who specializes in higher education, entrepreneurship and health care. She previously worked in campaign and legislative communications roles in Ohio state government. She lives in the German Village neighborhood of Columbus with her husband and their dog.