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Dr. Lisa Cooper continues groundbreaking heart disease research

Roderick C. Willis/NewsULM | 3/21/2014, 6 a.m.
Dr. Levi Watkins (left) presents Dr Lisa Cooper (center) with the American Heart Association’s Watkins-Saunders Award as Dr. Elijah Saunders (right) proudly looks on. Dr. Cooper is the principle investigator for the Center to Eliminate Cardiovascular Disparities funded by a grant from National Institutes of Health. (Courtesy photo)

With a national epidemic of rising diabetes, obesity and heart disease, a team of African American physicians at Johns Hopkins Medical School is leading an effort to educate the public and produce a new generation of researchers and advocates promoting healthy hearts. Lisa Cooper, MD, MPH is the James F. Fries Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School and director of the Center to Eliminate Cardiovascular Health Disparities in East Baltimore.

Cooper’s mission is to develop community partners with a community advisory board to educate the public on heart disease and to help train the next generation of researchers in cardiovascular disparities. A major component of her mission also includes conducting research to test programs to improve management and outcomes of hypertension, also known as high blood pressure.

Recently, Dr. Cooper participated in an interview for the documentary film, “Faces of Diabetes.” Research reveals a strong link between diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In the interview, she discussed the link between the rising rate of diabetes and how it impacts cardiovascular disease including heart attack, stroke and hypertension. She also had strong praises for a mentor who helped establish her dedication and approach to medical research.

Hypertension has for many years been recognized as a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Studies report a positive association between hypertension and insulin resistance. When patients have both hypertension and diabetes, which is a common combination, their risk for cardiovascular disease doubles.

According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of early death among people with diabetes. Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely than people without diabetes to die of heart disease or experience a stroke. Also, about 70 percent of people with diabetes have high blood pressure, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Compared to the general population, the CDC reports African Americans are disproportionately affected by diabetes with 4.9 million, or 18.7 percent of all African Americans aged 20 years or older suffering with the disease.

Dr. Cooper praised her mentor Dr. Elijah Saunders, a cardiologist and professor at University of Maryland Medical School. Dr. Saunders is a pioneer in conducting scholarly research on African Americans with hypertension. He was the first to coin the term— hypertension is “The Silent Killer.” He is a founding member of the International Society Hypertension in Blacks (ISHIB). In a real and meaningful way, Dr. Cooper is now expanding the research pioneered by Dr. Saunders more than 30 years ago. The baton for research on hypertension is being passed from Dr. Saunders to Dr. Cooper’s generation.

Dr. Cooper is the inaugural recipient of the American Heart Association’s Watkins-Saunders Award in 2013. The award recognizes excellence in clinical, medical, and community work focused on diminishing healthcare disparities in Maryland. Dr. Cooper trained with Dr. Elijah Saunders when she was a resident at the University of Maryland Medical Center and with Dr. Levi Watkins during her early years as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins. She describes herself as “honored and humbled” to have received this award that bears both their names.

“Dr. Elijah Saunders inspired me and motivated me as a young physician and enhanced my interest in medical research”, said Dr. Cooper. “When I was a resident training under Dr. Saunders, I was impressed about how he genuinely cared for his patients and made the young doctors realize that each patient was personally important to him. He set a very high bar for competency and caring.”

Dr. Cooper is the principle investigator for the Center to Eliminate Cardiovascular Disparities funded by a grant from National Institutes of Health. “We are grateful to Dr. Lisa Cooper for her dedication to eliminate cardiovascular health disparities,” said Maurice Hunt, founder and CEO of Diabetes Awareness Project. “All the research indicates that there is a direct connection between hypertension and diabetes, and her program will help African Americans understand that controlling one’s hypertension will probably help control one’s diabetes.”