By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Music-industry veteran Shanti Das grew up in an Atlanta neighborhood considered a food desert — heavy on fast-food restaurants and limited on access to grocery stores with fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy food choices.

In addition, high blood pressure runs rampant in her family and her brother has suffered from heart disease.

So, when Das left New York – where she had been working as a music executive for such companies as Columbia Records and Motown – to move back home, she wanted to see easier access to healthy food and lifestyle options.

She also had another significant motivation: staggering statistics.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of all Americans, and stroke is the No. 5 cause of death.  African-Americans are two to three times more likely to die from heart disease than white people, according to the American Heart Association.

African-Americans, Hispanics, Latinos and other ethnic minorities have higher rates of premature death from cardiovascular diseases. They also are at higher risk for high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

Developing these diseases is preventable in many cases by adopting healthier habits, Das said, and that’s the message she wants to help spread in her new role with the EmPOWERED To Serve campaign.

“One of the goals for me being the national ambassador is to really help bring about as much awareness as I can particularly for the American Heart Association with this being a multicultural initiative,” said Das, who has worked with artists such as Usher, Outkast, Toni Braxton and TLC. “I want to use my influence in the entertainment industry to spread the message and to help create healthier lifestyles and open up opportunities and access in our urban communities.”

That awareness can make a stark difference in life expectancy, experts say.

“In New Orleans, life expectancy in one neighborhood is 55 years and only five miles away, it is 80. In Philadelphia, the gap in life expectancy between zip codes is 20 years,” writes Kristi Durazo, senior strategy advisor and social determinant of health expert at the American Heart Association. “The differences in neighborhoods and their opportunity to access resources like healthy food, education, good jobs, banks, doctors, stable housing are just as stark.”

Her top priority is recruiting others to the EmPOWERED To Serve movement and speaking out about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise to help people extend their lives. She’s also in the beginning stages of working with civic and government leaders in Atlanta to bring healthier food and business options into urban neighborhoods and push for zoning laws on fast-food restaurants.

“This is such an amazing campaign,” said Das, who is hoping to “get our friends and family members on board so that we can cut down the number of cases of high blood pressure and stroke and heart disease in the urban community.”

She’s also recruiting others to join the  EmPOWERED To Serve movement, on which Das is a national ambassador.

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Shanti Das, fourth from left, at a charity event for organization “Sister of Today and Tomorrow.” Also pictured: event supporter Chanita Foster, second from left, and TLC member Rozonda Ocelean “Chilli” Thomas, fifth from left.

Good or bad health in communities is affected by societal and environmental factors, known as social determinants of health. These are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live work, and age. They are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources.

“I hope that we can get folks to organize and really help to fight some of the social determinants that exists in our communities,” she said.