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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000281886.96396.2e
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Yolanda King: Creating A New Health Legacy

Collier, Andrea K.

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This Daughter Of One Of Our Most Prominent Families Reaches Out To Black Americans As A Power To End Stroke Campaign Ambassador

The nation first saw photos of a young Yolanda King and her three siblings, with their mother, Coretta Scott King, in the days after the assassination of her father, civil rights leader and Nobel Prize laureate, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But some 40 years later, the legacy of service to her community handed down from her parents continues for Yolanda King, who is now an ambassador for the Power To End Stroke campaign. She took on this role not only to educate black Americans about stroke risk and prevention, but also to honor the memory of her mother, who suffered a stroke in August of 2005 and died five months later from ovarian cancer.

“Before my mother got sick, I really had no idea how prevalent stroke was among black Americans,” King, 51, says. “But after her stroke, I think it hit home. I even had two friends who had suffered strokes. But I wasn't aware that black women are at greater risk because we tend to be more sedentary, and suffer more from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes than white women,” she says.

King says the education she got while helping her mother recuperate expanded her consciousness. “When the American Heart Association approached me later that year to be an ambassador, I knew I wanted to get involved, because so many people in my life were at risk.” King says.

King and her mother had an extremely close relationship. “Before I [agreed] to being part of the campaign, I went to my mother to discuss with her what would be involved, including opening up some aspects of her personal life,” she says. King and her siblings shy away from talking about their family or private lives publicly, preferring to concentrate on their parents' legacy and life work of furthering peace and equality. “After explaining to her how many people we could help by speaking out, Mother gave me her blessing to do this.”

King says after her mother died in January 2006, “it really has been a healing experience to be able to share what our family went through, and make people aware of how to prevent stroke in their own lives,” King says. She doesn't hesitate to spread the word wherever she goes.

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Know Your Numbers, Manage Your Risks

King, who is the oldest of the King children, says her very public role in spreading the word on stroke prevention has strengthened her dedication to her own health. “There was no way that I could be out here encouraging other people to make lifestyle changes without making some of my own. I knew I had to walk the talk.” She says she had already taken a major step in reducing her risks when she stopped smoking in 2002.

Heavy smoking nearly doubles a person's risk for a stroke and other cardiovascular disease. But like some people who stop smoking, King says she gained weight—decreasing one important risk, but increasing another.

“Talking to people about the role that major risk factors for a stroke play, including being overweight, has been a great motivator for me. It is a strong reminder that losing weight is not about a vanity thing. It is a health thing. I needed to get the weight off,” King says.

As a native of Atlanta, King grapples with the challenges of having been raised on high-calorie, high-fat Southern food. “I have to admit I love good food. Working on the weight and eating healthier has been a process,” King says. She says she didn't try to do everything all at once. “I started cutting out the fried foods and went from there.”

King is always looking for new and healthy ways to prepare food, and prides herself on being a knowledgeable resource for someone trying to make changes in the way he or she eats. “I still have some of my favorite foods, but in moderation.” She says she's still tackling some of her food demons: “I still love ice cream, but it doesn't love me.”

King urges people to know their key health numbers to be able to manage their health risks. “Go to your doctor and see what your risks for high blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol are,” she says. “Blacks have the highest hypertension on the planet. So we really have to monitor and check it regularly,” she says.

King adds that many people don't know they have high blood pressure. “People don't understand that high blood pressure can occur without any symptoms. They think that just because they feel fine, that everything is okay.”

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“I have always had good blood pressure and normal cholesterol numbers, but I have also always had a sugar craving,” King says. “I could also be at risk for diabetes, which would add to my risk of stroke.”

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Stress Control

King believes stressful lives can lead to increased stroke risk. “My maternal grandparents lived on a farm. They ate healthy. They lived a much slower paced life, and there wasn't a lot of stress. I think it contributed to my grandfather living to be 99 years old.”

But King says the stress of leading her life as a public figure, and the demands on her time were just too overwhelming, and contributed to her mother's stroke. “Mother was never able to fully manage it.”

As an author, actress and head of Higher Ground Productions, a multimedia production company, King's own work schedule is intense. She says she spends her fair share of time in and out of airports, traveling to speaking engagements. While she has taken some time off to manage her mother's estate, she says she plans to get back into acting and other projects in September. But she says she has “definitely learned a lesson from observing my mother's life,” and has worked hard to find ways to manage the stress in her own life.

She recommends everybody find some kind of outlet for the stresses they face on a daily basis. “Some people might find an outlet in dancing, for others it may be reading. I have always enjoyed walking. It is important to have something.”

Studies show that developing and maintaining a routine of moderate physical activity can help maintain a healthy weight, and reduce risk for stroke and other diseases. “My mother had an exercise bike that she rarely used. She didn't exercise.” But King says she has found walking is not only a way to get calm, but also a great exercise and she tries to add it to her daily routine. “Physical activity can improve health on so many levels.”

King hopes she can spur people of color to action, and play an active role in significantly reducing the numbers of black men and women who die or are severely disabled from a stroke each year. She suggests looking at your lifestyle and making changes a little at a time. “Decide where you can make adjustments. Diminish things that are not good for you and [that] put your health at risk.”

“I know my mother would be proud that I am doing this work—both for the community and [for] myself.”

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The High Cost Of Stroke

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The risk of having a stroke doubles each year after age 55.

▪Men are more likely to suffer stroke than women, but more women die from stroke.

▪Blacks are twice as likely to suffer a stroke as whites, and are more likely to die from a primary or secondary stroke.

▪Stroke is a main cause of severe long-term disability, and Americans will pay $62 billion in stroke-related medical expenses in 2007.

▪Transient ischemic attack (TIA or “warning stroke”) can lead to a more severe stroke within a year.

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SOS: Save Our Selves

Stroke can have devastating effects on the mind (personality and mood, for instance) and body (balance, gait, ability to use hands and arms), which can dramatically alter someone's quality of life and sense of self.

Some stroke risk factors can't be changed, such as your age, gender or race. But you do have control over the most serious risk factors.

Know your numbers. Nearly 1 in 3 adults has high blood pressure. Uncontrolled high blood pressure is the Number One risk factor for a stroke. High blood cholesterol also increases stroke risk by building up fat in the blood and blocking arteries. And low levels of HDL increase the odds of stroke in men; more research is needed to determine whether this is true for women, too.

Manage your diabetes. Diabetics often have other risk factors for stroke. Stroke risk doubles when someone has both hypertension and diabetes, so aim for a target of under 130/80 with diet, exercise and medication, if needed. Diabetes also lowers HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, which can cause arteries to clog and can result in stroke, so try to keep LDL (bad cholesterol) levels below 100 mg/dL, HDL levels above 40 mg/dL, and triglycerides levels below 150 mg/dL.

Stop smoking. Cigarettes damage the cardiovascular system because they can raise blood pressure, diminish ability to perform physical activity and increase the blood's tendency to clot.

Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol can raise blood cholesterol levels. Most people should limit intake of fats to no more than 25 percent of daily calories. Healthy people should limit cholesterol to 300mg, with 7 to 10 percent coming from saturated fats. People with cardiovascular disease should limit cholesterol to 200mg a day, with less than 7 percent coming from saturated fats. Also, cut back on the salt. Limit intake to no more than 2,300mg, or a teaspoon or less per day. If you have heart disease, limit salt intake to 2,000mg. Finally, eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Studies show that antioxidants in produce help reduce risk of ischemic strokes.

Get moving—now! Physical activity can reduce the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease —and can control these risk factors for stroke. Try to get at least 30 minutes of activity every day, even if you have to break it up into three 10-minute chunks.

© 2007 American Heart Association, Inc.