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Gary H. Gibbons, M.D., is Director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where he oversees the third largest Institute at the NIH, with an annual budget of more than $3 billion and a staff of 917 employees. Dr. Gibbons’ research program is recognized for its discovery science related to cardiovascular health of minority populations. His laboratory is currently focused on discovering novel, ancestry-specific mediators of vascular disease.

Prior to being named Director of the NHLBI, he served as a member of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Advisory Council (NHLBAC) from 2009-2012 and as a member of the NHLBI Board of External Experts, a working group of the NHLBAC. Originally from Philadelphia, he earned his undergraduate degree from Princeton and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Medical School. He completed his residency and cardiology fellowship at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

He was a member of the faculty at Stanford University from 1990 until 1996, and Harvard Medical School from 1996 until 1999. He joined Morehouse School of Medicine in 1999 where he served as the founding Director of the Cardiovascular Research Institute, Chairperson of the Department of Physiology, and Professor of Physiology and Medicine until 2012 when he was appointed Director, NHLBI.

Throughout his career, Dr. Gibbons has received numerous honors, including election to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Sciences; selection as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Faculty Development Fellowship awardee; selection as a Pew Biomedical Scholar by the Pew Charitable Trusts; and recognition as an Established Investigator of the American Heart Association.

 What is asthma?

It’s National Asthma Awareness Month. It’s a chance for us at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, or NHLBI, to remind everyone that no one has to die of asthma. No one should have limited activity due to asthma. It’s a manageable condition.

  • Asthma is a chronic disease characterized by swollen airways.
  • People with asthma might have wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing
  • It affects people of all ages, but it often starts during childhood.
  • In the United States, 24 million adults are known to have asthma (That’s 8 out of 100 adults)
  • 3 million are children (That’s 9 out of 100 children)
  • Asthma attacks can be unpredictable and severe.
  • It’s a major cause of hospitalization and emergency department visits.
  • But again — nobody has to die of asthma. If you have asthma, you can control your symptoms and have an active life with no limitations.

Are there certain groups of Americans who are more likely to develop asthma or have more severe disease?

Yes, we know that African-American adults and children are more likely to have asthma and more likely to have significant complications from it:

  • African Americans were 20 percent more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic whites, in 2012.
  • In 2013, African Americans were three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than the white population.
  • African American children are 3 times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for asthma, as compared to non-Hispanic white children.

What causes asthma?           

The exact cause of asthma isn’t known, but we believe that asthma is caused by a combination of environmental exposures and genetics.

  • Research shows the exposures we experience early in life, maybe even in utero, are important.
  • For example, research has identified that:
  • Patients with asthma often have genetic predisposition to develop allergies; their parents often have/had asthma; and
  • Specific respiratory infections during childhood seem to predispose children to develop asthma
  • Asthma can be triggered by different things in different people.
  • Common triggers include:
  • Animal dander (from cats), cockroaches, mold, and pollen
  • Air pollution, cleaning products, perfume or hairspray, smoke
  • Some medications, such as aspirin
  • Viruses, like the common cold
  • Sometimes even physical activity itself, can trigger asthma
  • Asthma is different for each person. But again it’s manageable – so talk with your doctor.

What can people do if they have asthma? See your doctor. Asthma can change over time, so see your doctor regularly to adjust your treatment if needed. Ask your doctor for a written asthma action planThis tells you and others what to do if an asthma attack happens. Share copies of the written asthma action plan with family members, caregivers, and others, such as school nurses.

  • Take your medications as directed.
  • Tell your doctor what makes your symptoms worse.
  • Know your triggers and learn how to manage them.
  • Watch your asthma and treat symptoms fast.
  • Check out the NHLBI website ( There are many helpful free resources on how to manage asthma.)

What research is being done on asthma?

NHLBI-supported research on the development and testing of new asthma treatments and management strategies has shaped current recommendations for patients with asthma. However, those recommendations are often not carried out, even in children at high risk for poor asthma outcomes. That’s a problem. In other words, children need to take their meds, but it can be difficult. And we know the guidelines for health care providers and patients are complicated and could be simplified.

To address these issues NHLBI created the Asthma Empowerment Collaborations to Reduce Childhood Asthma Disparities The goal is to look for the most effective ways to manage asthma with a coordinated approach that includes health care providers, families, and the communities in which they live.We hope to support asthma patients in all of their environments – at home, at school, in their communities.

Through research we’ve learned a lot about genetics and asthma, and research has led to effective treatments. Now we need to pivot to do precision medicine studies – because we know one size does not fit all when it comes to asthma. You need to tailor treatments to patients.

Will there ever be a cure for asthma? 

We are always hopeful. As I mentioned, research has advanced our understanding of asthma. Asthma can be managed.There should never be a death triggered by asthma. And no one should have limited activity because of asthma. If asthma symptoms are limiting your lifestyle, talk to your doctor and come up with a plan to get your asthma under control.

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Get Well Wednesday: What You Should Know About Asthma  was originally published on