Video: Lessons in health for future generations

Professor Mark Hanson’s innovative project is aiming to change habits passed down through generations with the help of funding from you. Watch our exclusive behind-the-scenes video, or read more.

We all have stories of life-changing moments, and it’s this idea that underpins an innovative BHF-funded research project at the University of Southampton. LifeLab is a purpose-built educational laboratory showing young teenagers how their lifestyle may affect their future heart health.

Its aim is to educate children before they become parents themselves, because research has shown that an unhealthy lifestyle negatively affects parental DNA.

“We think we can change their attitudes and behaviours to affect their health,” says Professor Mark Hanson. “It’s important, because they will be the parents of tomorrow. By helping to educate them, we hope we can encourage them to live a healthier lifestyle and to pass that on to future generations.”

We hope we can encourage them to live a healthier lifestyle and to pass that on to future generations

A team of educators works with schools before they get to visit the centre. “We give teachers a booklet, which contains a series of lesson plans. It helps them to prepare the kids and engage them with the LifeLab concept, taking the burden off their shoulders,” explains Professor Hanson, who is a former teacher.

After an initial four lessons, the children come for a day visit to the LifeLab, where they’re encouraged to be hands-on.

School groups visiting LifeLab“They measure the blood flow in their carotid arteries using an ultrasound machine, they measure muscle function and grip strength, and the extract their DNA and look at how their diet may alter DNA function,” says Professor Hanson. “We have an exercise bike and we test lung function and talk about the risks of smoking.

“There’s a whole range of activities that are exciting and fun and which they’d never have the opportunity to do in school. We are very clear to them that we’re not testing their health, but giving them a chance to explore how they might measure and improve health.”

At the end of the day, the children are encouraged to make pledges about how they’ll live a healthier lifestyle. When they return to school, there is a series of follow-up lessons.

Life-changing behaviour

More than 4,000 children aged 13 and 14 have visited the lab and, says Professor Hanson, the results are positive. “Even six months after a visit to the LifeLab, we find that children’s attitudes show a sustained change. We don’t know yet whether that translates into healthier behaviour or lives or reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).”

The BHF has awarded LifeLab a grant of £226,165 to evaluate the success of the programme by examining 2,500 children who have visited the lab over a three-year period.

BHF grant figureIn 2013, the lab moved to a new location within Southampton General Hospital. Since then, it has welcomed 1,500 children from 20 Southampton schools and has trained 60 teachers.

“It is an idea that’s gaining enormous momentum,” says Professor Hanson. “We feel this is the beginning of an important new social movement, and we hope it’s a step towards reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Longer-term, Professor Hanson has ambitions to create a virtual version of the LifeLab on the internet, and using interactive apps. “We hope we will be able to develop a national or international programme that combines internet-based activities with physical visits, using science learning centres, medical schools and hospitals,” he says.

“When you hear kids saying it’s the first time they’re learning about science, it’s fantastic,” says Professor Hanson. “Of all the things I’ve been involved in over the years, this is the one where everyone tells me what a great idea they think it is. We’ve had nothing but praise from the parents and teachers, and even the bus driver who brings them to and from the lab. He asked me: ‘What have you done to these children? When they get back on the bus they talk about nothing but LifeLab’.”

CV BHF Professor Mark Hanson

  • Director, Academic Unit of Human Development and Health, University of Southampton
  • BHF Professor of Cardiovascular Science
  • Previously at University of Reading
  • His work combines epidemiology (population studies) and epigenetics (study of cellular and physiological trait variations that can’t be explained by changes in the DNA sequence)

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