The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 10, 2013

New Ulm takes heart in health project stats

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

NEW ULM — Five years into a leading-edge community initiative to curtail heart attacks in New Ulm, project coordinators say “statistically significant” improvements are being shown in healthy-living habits.

Though that may sound like lukewarm positivity, Heart of New Ulm project leader Jackie Boucher said moving the needle on community health even slightly at this point is encouraging in the overall arc of the 10-year study.

“We know we’re not going to eliminate all heart attacks. Our overarching goal is to reduce heart attacks over 10 years in the community.”

The numbers suggest the project is well on track toward that end.

For example, national data trends for hypertension and pre-hypertension (blood pressure) have been stable for the past decade, while data for adult New Ulm residents shows a 2.7 percent drop in a four-year period.

Also, New Ulm residents 40-79 in that period showed a 2.2 percent drop in uncontrolled cholesterol readings, significantly better than  comparable national averages.

Community buy-in to the project also has manifested itself in more visible ways, such as the group of bank employees who collectively lost 650 pounds.

Boucher also ticked off other statistically significant community health markers:

“We’ve had more people taking a daily aspirin, more getting exercise, people eating more fruits and vegetables, people smoking less.”

She said what the project hasn’t produced yet is a significant change in overall obesity numbers. But she said even that can be viewed as a positive because weights of project participants have held stable rather than increase, which is usually the norm as people age.

The Heart of New Ulm is a $40 million initiative that began in 2008 and is funded by Allina Hospitals and Clinics. It’s a community-driven project encouraging lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation and improved nutrition.

Boucher said the community is engaged at every level, from schools to worksites, to lay health leaders to health care providers.

The project’s first adult health screenings took place in 2009 and involved nearly 5,200 people.

In 2011, a study showed a 24 percent drop in the number of acute heart attacks in a five-quarter period compared with the previous five-quarter period, although Boucher cautioned that those figures have yet to be validated.

“We really want to make sure. Sometimes things can get coded as heart attacks that aren’t heart attacks.”

Boucher said that while the overall community health statistics are encouraging, she stresses they are relatively early results in the project, reflecting changes from 2009-2011.

She said heart health screenings will again be conducted in 2014 with health trends continuing to be monitored to ascertain improvements in cardiovascular disease risk factors.

Meantime, the project continues to move forward with communitywide healthy living programs.

Cindy Winters, who joined the project in May to head its community programs, said this year the project’s largest-ever community health challenge will begin — an 18-month weight-loss challenge involving more than 2,000 adults 18 and over.

The fundraising incentive is to lose enough collective weight to receive $100,000 in grants. Winters said the money will be used to buy public outdoor exercise equipment that will be clustered in city parks.

Winters said she’s also spearheading a promotion to get more residents to ride bicycles, which plays into one of her definitions of success for the project.

At its end in 2018, Winters said she wants to look out over the parking lot at New Ulm Medical Center and see this:

“A lot less cars and a lot more bikes.”