An army of nutrition experts is constantly reminding us that most fast food is bad for health. But they’re not around to back you up when your children or grandchildren unleash powerful weapons of cuteness to convince you to stop at a fast-food chain. It’s hard not to give in when the ones you adore put on the pressure, even when they’re older. One new study links several weekly fast-food meals with increased risks of asthma, rhinitis, and eczema. Another shows that when kids eat out they take in up to 300 more calories than when eating at home. Stacey Nelson, a registered dietitian who is a clinical nutrition manager at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, offers some advice for when fast food is the only option.
After getting too little sleep Monday through Friday, many teens try to catch up on weekends, sometimes straggling out of bed after noon. While they may feel like they are doing their bodies a favor, they actually aren’t. Sleeping late on Saturday and Sunday may fill a teen’s sleep deficit, but it creates a bigger problem. It allows his or her inner clock to further drift away from the external clock, worsening the shift begun by delaying bedtime on school nights. The result: the circadian sleep is thrown out of whack, which makes it much more difficult to get up at the usual wake time. In effect, by sleeping late on Saturday and Sunday, your teen is suffering from the equivalent of a five-hour jet lag when it’s time to get up on Monday morning. The alarm clock may be saying 6:00 am, but his or her inner clock is reading 1:00 am. This will make it much harder for your teen to concentrate and take in anything at school.
If you like numbers and statistics, especially those about health, two reports released this week should keep you occupied for days: the massive Global Burden of Disease study was published in The Lancet, and the American Heart Association released its annual “Heart and stroke statistics” report. The Global Burden of Disease project found that average life expectancy continues to rise in most countries. It also found that infection and other communicable causes of disease no longer dominate deaths and disability. Today, so-called non-communicable causes like traffic accidents, violence and war, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions account for two-thirds of world deaths and the majority of years lost to disability and death. According to the American Heart Association’s annual report, the percentage of deaths due to heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases has fallen by nearly one-third since 1999, but don’t expect that to continue. Increases in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, overweight, and inactivity threaten to reverse these gains.
As a parent who has dutifully combed nits from my children’s hair, the promise of a no-comb treatment for head lice sounds mighty appealing. An article in today’s New England Journal of Medicine looks like a slam dunk for such a treatment, a medication called ivermectin (Sklice). In two trials, one dose of ivermectin and no nit-combing did vastly better than a placebo treatment. Side effects were also minimal. Keep in mind that the trials didn’t test ivermectin against the current standard treatment using lotions made with permethrin or pyrethrins. And they included under 800 people in carefully controlled situations. That means we don’t really know the true effectiveness, side effects, safety profile, and interactions with other drugs. Until more is known about side effects and how ivermectin stacks up against other treatments, it seems wise to follow the current guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. They call for the use of an over-the-counter product containing permethrin or pyrethrins as a first salvo against head lice, along with combing wet hair with a fine-toothed comb to remove nits.
Two years ago, new research showed that American girls were hitting puberty at younger ages than ever. The same thing is happening with boys: they are starting puberty almost two years earlier than they did 30 to 40 years ago. Why this is happening isn’t clear, but it could affect social and sexual behaviors. A new study shows that the average age of puberty is now 10 years for white boys (about one-and-a-half years earlier than what has long been considered “normal”), 9 years for African-American boys (about two years earlier than expected), and 10 years for Hispanic boys, which is unchanged from before. Although early puberty is increasingly common, it can be a signal of a tumor in the brain, pituitary glands, or elsewhere; an underactive thyroid gland; or other medical problems.
A friend once asked me about his son, who was about to turn 20. As a teenager, the boy had a quick temper. But now, on the brink of adulthood, the young man seemed to be getting worse. When a teen gets angrier as time goes by, it is a cause for concern. A 19-year-old is no longer a child, but neither is he or she a fully-fledged adult. This in-between state can extend well into the twenties. Some human development researchers have begun to call it “emerging adulthood.” No matter this stage is called, it presents a tricky time for parents and their children. Emerging adults must decide how much help they want or are willing to accept from their parents or anyone else. At the same time, parents must decide how much help it is reasonable to give.
The other day I saw a mother hand an iPhone to a young baby in a stroller. I cringed because it made me think of how much time my young kids spend on the iPad and in front of the TV. It’s a dilemma for parents. Is it okay to let your daughter play with your phone so you can get five minutes of quiet in a restaurant, or will that permanently scuttle her attention span? Ann Densmore, Ed.D., an expert in speech and language development and co-author of Your Successful Preschooler, offers some practical advice for parents. “Screen time is here to stay for young children and we can’t stop it,” she told me. “The world is now inescapably online and digital. Even schools are replacing textbooks with iPads and digital texts. So moms and dads really need to figure out what’s right for their families.”
Bisphenol A, or BPA, has been used for decades to make hard plastic water bottles and to coat the inside of food cans. Tiny amounts of BPA migrate from these containers into water or food, and then into people. BPA is thought to mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen, which can interfere with growth and throw off normal hormonal interactions. In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the FDA to ban the use of BPA in food packaging. The FDA finally responded last week. It denied the petition, saying the organization didn’t provide compelling data to make the case for a ban. The FDA didn’t rule out further action. In the meantime, there are several things you can do to minimize your BPA exposure.
For decades, the word “autism” meant an immutable brain disorder, one determined solely by genes and that was only marginally responsive to therapies. Today it is coming to mean something different and more manageable. A growing body of research is dramatically changing the face and future of autism. In The Autism Revolution, a new book from Harvard Health Publications that I wrote with Karen Weintraub, I explain this evolution in autism science and offer strategies for families to help their children right now. One practical finding is that autism is not just a brain disorder but a whole-body condition. Treating digestive and immune system problems can make a profound difference in the family’s life, and even in the autism itself. Another finding is that autism may not necessarily be fixed for life, and that some kids improve with time and treatment.
More and more parents are “redshirting” their young ones. That’s the practice of not starting a child in kindergarten until after his or her sixth birthday. Ann Densmore, EdD, an expert in language and social communication skills in children and co-author of Your Successful Preschooler, said parents do this to gain competitive advantages for their children and as a response to the shift in what kindergarten is. You can help prepare your children for kindergarten by ensuring there is adequate facilitated play in preschool. On the community level, talk with teachers, principals, and other parents. Challenge school committees. And realize that starting kindergarten is a new beginning for a child and his or her parents.