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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000359346.89732.62
Features: Cover Story: Kids Of The Future

Out Of The Mouths Of Babes Comes Sound Health Advice

Papazian, Ruth

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The well-worn cliché, “children are our future,” has it exactly backwards. We grown-ups are their future — and all too often the future holds ongoing struggles with weight, lack of physical activity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and other serious cardiovascular risk factors that can lead to heart attack and stroke.

But it doesn't have to be this way. National Youth Advisory Board Members for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (see sidebar) are determined to take back their futures, as well as to help their friends and classmates lay the groundwork for good health now and throughout adulthood.

Meet one of them: Madison Shari Burke, 17, a senior at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis. In addition to maintaining a B average, Madison is a member of the National Honor Society, Senior Class Vice-President, captain of the Varsity Cheerleading squad, Sunday School assistant teacher, a semifinalist in her state's Miss America's Outstanding Teen Competition — and an American Heart Association volunteer. (This, folks, is just a partial list of Madison's activities.)

Madison's interest in heart disease is genetic — in more ways than one.

Twelve years ago, her mother, Michelle, now 44, found out for the first time that she had dilated cardiomyopathy — a condition in which the heart becomes enlarged and can't contract properly. Dilated cardiomyopathy often leads to arrhythmia (abnormal heartbeat), as it did in Michelle's case. Doctors put Michelle on beta-blockers to help stabilize her heart rhythm, and placed an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) “as an insurance policy.”

Michelle's sister, Shari, died at the age of 19 of ventricular tachycardia — a racing heartbeat that originates in the heart's lower chambers, which leads to a wildly erratic and ineffective heart beat, loss of blood pressure, and circulatory collapse— and Michelle's father died in April after a long battle with heart failure, likely due to the same problem of weak heart muscle.

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Michelle was determined to learn more about protecting her heart health and began doing volunteer work for the AHA's Go Red for Women initiative. Her enthusiasm and commitment rubbed off on Madison, prompting her to take part in her mom's Go Red activities and then to branch out by joining the AHA's St. Louis Speaker's Bureau and getting involved with the Alliance.

“I wanted to make a difference in my community after the American Heart Association ranked my hometown, St. Louis, as the second worst city in the country for women's heart health in 2008.” (Nashville and Detroit were Number One and Three, respectively, in having the highest female cardiac mortality.)

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Veggie (And Fruit) Tales

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Figure. Madison talk...
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Madison regularly speaks to kids about healthy eating and physical activity, and has started a program for young girls, “Be Healthy, Be a Leader,” to help her spread her message to their friends, families and neighbors. “I knew I couldn't educate the whole world so when I speak to one girl, she might speak to her family and to another five girls.”

Madison's focus is on young girls because she can relate to them and wants to be a role model for them. “When I was younger, I always looked up to teenagers, and the ones who mentored me made such a difference in my life.”

Madison has her “Be Healthy, Be a Leader” presentation down to a science. She first gets the girls pumped up with a cheer about getting healthy:

Hey you, we're gonna be healthy

We're gonna exercise [repeat]

We're gonna eat right [repeat]

No more couch potatoes [repeat]

We're gonna be a healthy generation! [repeat]

Then she tells them about the benefits of exercise and how much fun it is — and she's not just talkin' the talk, either. In addition to being on the pep squad at school, Madison takes jazz dance classes and lifts weights. Her family's nightly ritual is “stretch time” — the family congregates in the living room for a five- to 10-minute session of Pilates floor exercises, such as leg lifts and planks.

She introduces the topic of healthy eating by offering the girls fruit from a basket, and as they pick a red apple, an orange apricot or purple plum she tells them what nutrients are associated with each color.

Along the way there are fun quizzes that Madison downloads from the AHA and Alliance Web sites that let her know whether her audience is absorbing all the information. She gives out prizes for each correct answer, such as a Frisbee adorned with the Alliance logo, stickers and rub-on tattoos, or a magnetic Kitchen Scorecard for the fridge that lets kids keep track of how many fruits and veggies they've eaten that day.

Madison ends each session by discussing the meaning and importance of leadership. “My definition of a leader is someone who makes a difference. I tell the girls if they think what they learned from me is important, they can be leaders by sharing it and encouraging people to act on it.”

Each girl also gets a letter to take home to her parents that outlines the information she discussed and includes links to the AHA and Alliance Web sites, as well as her e-mail address. “A lot of mothers write to me thanking me for taking the time to talk to their daughters.”

Why should these girls and their parents pay any mind to Madison? Because she has “street cred” when it comes to heart disease. Given their family history, Michelle makes sure that Madison and her two brothers Landon, 15, and Carson, 12, get a complete cardiovascular checkup every two years — including an electrocardiogram (ECG ), which would detect a heart rhythm disturbance — “and so far, they show no signs of heart abnormalities.”

“Some people would be frightened by their family history, but I've tried to turn it around by helping others.”

After a nationwide search in 2008, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation chose 20 kids ranging in age from 8 to 16 to join its inaugural “Youth Advisory Board” to give the Alliance feedback on effective strategies and messages to reach and empower kids to make healthy lifestyle changes, and to be leaders in their own communities by setting a good example themselves.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation, which launched in May 2005 to address one of the nation's leading public health threats — childhood obesity. The goal of the Alliance is to reduce the nationwide prevalence of childhood obesity by 2015 and to empower kids nationwide to make healthy lifestyle choices and is enlisting parents, schools, restaurants, doctors and communities in this effort. For more information, please visit www.HealthierGeneration.org and www.AmericanHeart.org.

© 2009 American Heart Association, Inc.

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