Health and Fitness

Parents should be immersed in their children’s health care, for two reasons: they committed to it at conception, and its complexity is exploding along with medical science, medical hype, and internet access to both. Newsweek Magazine, Sept 22, 2003 helped by discussing their list of children’s most prevalent health concerns: allergies, asthma, immunizations, obesity, sports safety, antibiotic misuse, mental illnesses, and sleep. Here is a brief [annotated] summary of their article to help parents prioritize and focus their efforts. You may find the Newsweek article in your pediatrician’s waiting room by the time your baby enters college … which is good timing for her last immunization, as you shall see.

Allergies, from major nuisances like hay fever to life threatening peanut specks, have absolutely boomed in frequency and severity in just the past few years. 90% of them involve peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, milk, eggs, soy, and wheat, in that general order. Symptoms range from rashes to often-fatal revolts of all the body organs. Exposure to allergens during infancy is a major controllable factor; kids should consume only breast milk until six months old, mothers should avoid peanuts during pregnancy and the nursing period, and kids shouldn’t get near peanut butter until they’re three years old (moo juice is OK at one). Diesel exhaust, second-hand smoke, and air pollution in general correlate strongly with allergy development. Parents with allergies should exceed these guidelines, as tendencies towards allergies are often inherited.

Allergies trigger many asthma attacks, including the hundreds of thousands of ER trips and many thousands of asthma deaths among children each year. Childhood asthma has doubled in just the last generation; fully one third of the kids in one inner city school have it. Asthma attacks can simulate someone holding a plastic bag over one’s head, yet far too many kids suffer far too often and far too severely because their parents incorrectly think it’s not treatable, not serious, or a phase they’ll outgrow.

In the broader picture, the most proven and safe prevention against most diseases is early, broad immunization. Kids should receive 20 immunizations against l1 diseases by the age of two, and teenagers should get meningococcal vaccine before living in a dorm. Despite rumors, combination shots are safe and vaccinations do not cause mercury poisoning. All these vaccines pose far less risk than the diseases they prevent.

Far more life-threatening than many of these preventable diseases is another preventable problem -- childhood obesity -- and the diseases it often leads to. Obese kids face at least three major threats:

  • discrimination and bullying,
  • very slim odds of avoiding adults obesity, and
  • several life-threatening diseases.

The best way to combat lifelong obesity is better parenting; three-year-olds have a heck of a time driving through the fast food window. Parental laxity has contributed to a 300% increase in overweight kids in just the last three decades, and school boards compound the problem by sacrificing gym classes to budget crunches and catering to spoiled kids’ demands for junk food. The school I grew up in shoved gym classes, the whole food pyramid, and nothing but the food pyramid down our throats for 12 years, and our mothers personally cooked virtually every meal we ate outside school; we’re far better off for it.

You know obese kids are on the fast track to heart disease, strokes, and diabetes, but you may not know that severely obese teens feel even more social isolation than teenage cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, that one in six kids is seriously overweight, and that this number has tripled in just 30 years. [Didn’t video games appear in the 70s?] It’s up to parents to reverse this trend, and the best ways to do that are to make sure our own kids don’t succumb to it and to support community attempts to reverse it.

A giant step away from obesity, for both parents and communities, is sports. Sure, kids get hurt at play, but the risks of a sedentary lifestyle are greater and longer-lasting than most sports injuries. The healthiest senior citizens I know began playing hard long before pre-school, and still play harder than most teenagers do.

We can greatly reduce the risks of sport injuries in several ways.

  • Make the little rebels wear their helmets (bikes are by far the number one trigger for ER visits under age 10, and 120,000 of their 140,000 ER trips for head injuries are preventable by helmets),
  • make referees get tough on fouls,
  • make your schools hire athletic trainers (because the coach is busy coaching), and
  • limit the Stupid Kid Tricks that get them on “Real TV” and “What Were You Thinking?”

One episode of “What IDIOTS!” should motivate every parent to covertly observe his boy’s skateboard antics. Many ER docs would say that if a kid jumps his skateboard off two-story buildings onto concrete for entertainment, his parents have failed him.

No matter how kids get ill/scraped/reassembled, we need to supervise their access to antibiotics. A well-informed doctor [believe it or not, many people select their doctors by congeniality, not competence] will tell you whether and how to use any antibiotics she prescribes; heed her instructions, sticking to band aids, soap and water for most booboos and time and Coldeeze for cold symptoms.

Just as kids’ flesh, bone, and immune systems break, so do their minds. The variety, impact, and prevalence of mental illnesses in children are astounding, and you and I are not competent enough to distinguish “a phase” from serious mental illness. Diagnosable, often devastating, and often treatable mental illnesses occur in about 20% of children, and not one in five of those cases get needed care. This means one in six American youths suffers unnecessarily from such career-threatening, even life-threatening, illnesses as depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and a whole array of anxiety disorders ... for starters.

Come on, parents; wake up and do the job you signed up for on that hot, sweaty night. As your child’s first line of detection and only line of defense, you must

  • a) be alert to the possibility of mental illness,
  • b) consult professional help including psychotherapy when such illness is suspected,
  • c) decide whether the diagnosis is real or psychobabble or pill-pushing, and
  • d) decide whether and how to treat it.

An ADHD diagnosis checklist, for example, at Pediatrics Magazine may help you decide whether your kid’s rambunctious nature needs professional attention, tougher love (i.e. discipline), or greater challenges to hold his interest. Broken leg, broken brain … there’s no stigma with either; they just require different kinds of doctors. Stuff breaks, and sometimes it takes a pro to fix it.

[But I have to inject this. Because many medical articles, including this series in Newsweek, are supported by pharmaceutical firms, we should all question the media’s drug recommendations. Nobody would be drugging my hypothetical kids into submissive automatons until I was educated in the field and it was proven that they have harmful brain chemical imbalances correctable only by safe drugs. Adult ADD is even more suspect and some whistleblowers condemn it.]

Must we keep kids in bed to keep them safe? Yes, that’s certainly part of the solution. Inadequate sleep contributes significantly to obesity (for both kids and adults), depression and other serious mental illnesses, inattention or fidgeting or even full-fledged ADHD symptoms, lower grades, automobile accidents, sleepwalking, night terrors, trouble getting to sleep, and narcolepsy. Sleep deprivation is serious, and kicks in far sooner than you might think, at 14 hours per day for babies, 10 hours for sixth graders, 9:15 for teens, and 8 for adults. But not even 15% of kids with sleep deprivation symptoms have them on their medical records, and in one study not even one percent of sleep-deprived kids received effective treatment.

Fixes include less noise and light in kids’ bedrooms, enforcement of bedtime, later morning classes, diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders, bedtime routines for kids, and no TV near bedtime (that inane stuff actually excites kids). Chronic sleep deprivation is as life-threatening as smoking or obesity, but early childhood development of good sleep habits can avert many lifelong sleep deprivation problems.

Your homework assignment as parents of children or adolescents is to identify the most prevalent health threats in their lives, research them, decide on a course of action, act to reduce that threat, then repeat with the next item on the list. Then at some point we must all get on with our lives, quit worrying about every little thing, and have fun. Fun in itself is a great health booster, as long as it doesn’t include hang gliding in thunderstorms or ... gasp … sleeping only six hours per night.

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