Heart Health Research Thrives in School of Nursing

UConn’s School of Nursing faculty and students are addressing heart health from many perspectives

A group of UConn Nursing students hold up red paper hearts for Heart Health Awareness Month.

School of Nursing students display their pride in heart health (UConn School of Nursing Photo)

UConn’s School of Nursing faculty and students are addressing heart health from many perspectives. It’s an important topic to consider as February, which is American Heart Health Month, concludes.

“Our research and scholarship at the School of Nursing is focused on health, including cardiovascular health across the lifespan,” says Dean Victoria Vaughan Dickson. “Our faculty address the heart health continuum from prevention to management of chronic cardiovascular disease.

“We focus on improving outcomes for people with cardiovascular conditions, such as coronary heart disease including those who have had a heart attack, experience arrhythmias, or are living with heart failure. We are especially focused on the needs of individuals, families and communities who are vulnerable due to limited resources, including access to health care. Social and environmental factors are important influences of cardiovascular disease.”

School of Nursing Dean Victoria Vaughan Dickson.
School of Nursing Dean Victoria Vaughan Dickson (contributed photo)

The School of Nursing faculty and students focus on improving important health behaviors such as access to a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and low-fat and low-salt foods. Physical activity and adequate sleep are also critical to preventing heart disease. These behaviors may be particularly hard for individuals who may live in unsafe neighborhoods or have inadequate resources to purchase healthy foods. At UConn Nursing, the emphasis includes both research and practice related to these concerns.

Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Research and Scholarship Nancy Redeker has focused on one of the newly-accepted aspects of heart health – sleep health – for many years.

“Sleep problems are risk factors for heart disease and stroke,” says Redeker. “Sleep apnea, insomnia, and getting less than seven hours of sleep at night can lead to high blood pressure and diabetes, which can lead to heart disease. These problems worsen outcomes for people who already have cardiovascular disease.”

Redeker was honored with the 2023 Katharine A. Lembright Award, which is given by the American Heart Association Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing. The award recognizes cardiovascular research conducted by established nurse scientists. Redeker’s National Institutes of Health-funded research demonstrated that behavioral treatment for insomnia among people with chronic heart failure improved important outcomes, such as fatigue, and function.

There are a variety of nursing responsibilities, and each one involves heart health care.

“At UConn we are preparing nurses with advanced degrees to become leaders, advanced practice nurses and researchers, as well as nurses at the bedside in hospital and other settings,” says Redeker.

School of Nursing Professor Nancy Redeker.
School of Nursing Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Research and Scholarship Nancy Redeker (UConn Photo)

“Nurses work in a variety of settings including community and primary care, in addition to acute care hospitals,” Dickson says. “They are often the first and most frequent line of contact with people of all backgrounds and experiences seeking care for heart disease. Promoting health equity associated with cardiovascular disease is of utmost important.”

Dickson also says that the School of Nursing focuses on teaching students to educate and counsel patients after a cardiac event has taken place.

“We want patients to develop skill in protective behaviors after a cardiac event,” says Dickson. “This includes adhering to medication as prescribed, eating a heart healthy diet, obtaining healthy sleep, increasing exercise, and being aware of and managing symptoms. It also includes taking care of other conditions like diabetes, which is a risk factor for poor outcomes.”

Dickson’s particular research focuses on structural and social determinants of health and biobehavioral factors that influence self-care of those with cardiovascular disease or at risk for it.

“My research takes place in the community and focuses on interventions that improve self-care and optimizes the health and well-being of individuals with heart disease.” says Dickson. “An important part of the work we are doing in the School of Nursing is collaborating with our community partners.”

Examples of these collaborations include Professor Louise Reagan’s research on supporting people who have recently been incarcerated to improve management of diabetes; Professor Kelley Newlin Lew’s research with low-income patients with diabetes to improve glucose monitoring; and former Dean Deborah Chyun’s research focused on links between diabetes and cardiovascular disease.