Doctor gave up journalism to become public health leader

By American Heart Association News

Photo courtesy of Dr. Sonia Angell
Dr. Sonia Angell won the American Heart Association's 2019 Award for Meritorious Service. (Photo courtesy of Sonia Angell)

Before Dr. Sonia Angell became a public health leader, she wanted to be a writer. While volunteering with the Peace Corps in Nepal, she decided to put down her notebook.

"I loved journalism, but I discovered that what I loved more was rolling up my sleeves and working in communities," she said. "My experience in Nepal was the turning point. Soon after, I realized I wanted to be directly involved in health as a way to lift up communities."

Angell's dedication to public health has led her to work hand-in-hand with the American Heart Association for more than a decade. As co-chair of the AHA's 2030 Goal Setting Task Force and a health advocate who has helped shape global public policy, Angell is being honored with the AHA's Award for Meritorious Service.

"The American Heart Association has been one of our most important collaborators," said Angell, who most recently worked as Deputy Commissioner at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "Their mix of scientific expertise, advocacy and communication tools puts them in an important position to advance the work in ways others may not be able to. They raise issues around health inequities and build bridges to other sectors – the food industry, for example – to help change the environments we all live in."

Angell has played key roles across the health spectrum. A 2004 graduate of the University of Michigan's Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, she was founding director of New York City's cardiovascular disease prevention and control program, where she first began collaborating with the AHA.

She moved to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, serving as senior advisor in Global Noncommunicable Disease and established the Global Noncommunicable Disease Unit. She later returned to New York City's health department, where she oversaw the Division of Prevention and Primary Care.

Along the way, she's promoted innovative public health programs and policies to help people quit smoking, lower their blood pressure and cholesterol, eat healthier, and get better health care.

She worked hard to help enact a 2006 ban of artificial trans fat in New York City restaurants. For that effort, the city partnered with the AHA on the Trans Fat Help Center, which assisted restaurants in phasing out artificial trans fat, a type of fat that increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

"Good policymaking combined with technical support for restaurants ended up being a recipe for success," she said.

She's encouraged food companies to make packaged foods more nutritious as part of the National Salt and Sugar Reduction Initiative. Another big challenge, she said, is making sure people can easily access fresh fruits and vegetables.

"We can empower individuals with the knowledge to make good decisions, but if their environment doesn't offer them healthy options – for example, if fresh fruits and vegetables aren't sold in their neighborhoods – then all of that knowledge will have little impact," she said. "We have to make our neighborhoods places where making the healthy choice is the easy choice."

Currently an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University and a practicing physician, Angell said she's dedicated to finding new ways to improve public health.

She's concerned about the impact climate change will have on health and cardiovascular disease and access to nutritious food. And she vows to fight persistent disparities in health outcomes. For example, she points out that black adults in New York City are three times more likely to die prematurely from stroke than white adults.

"We have to make sure those gaps are closing everywhere and that everyone benefits equally from health interventions," she said. "There's no simple fix. But the greatest advances are made when we work together to create sustainable change in all communities."

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