Tag Archive for healthy development

Men, This Decision Will Change Your Brain for Good!

Researchers have discovered several activities that help reduce the risk of Dementia. Things like education, regular intellectual stimulation, financial security, gardening, knitting, and a mother’s diet during pregnancy have all been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. However, one decision helped men specifically. This one decision helped men live longer and reduced their risk for dementia. Lawrence Whalley, professor of mental health in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, puts it this way, “a boy is never told what he needs to do if he wants to live a longer life. But what he should do is marry an intelligent woman.” Yes, you heard it right. Men who marry intelligent women live longer, happier lives. And, they are at lower risk for developing dementia. In fact, some men with “intelligent wives” showed physical signs of dementia in brain scans but did not experience any symptoms of the disease. Despite what the scans revealed about the structure of their brains, they were “fully functional and ‘highly intelligent.'”

So, if your wife engages you in conversations that challenge your thinking, if she encourages adventures that present new opportunities for learning, or if she accompanies you on stimulating activities, take a moment to reflect on the precious gift you have been given. She is a gift that contributes to your long and happy life. She is a gift helping you remain mentally healthy. Why not do something today to show her how much you appreciate her presence in your life?

PS—I told my wife about this research. She just smiled and said, “No surprise there.”  I have to say, if marrying an intelligent woman helps a man live long, healthy, and wise…I have a lot of years left! I am truly blessed. How about you?

Second-Hand What??

We’ve all heard about the dangers of second-hand smoke. But, have you thought about the dangers of second-hand alcohol abuse? A recent article in BMC Medicine reported three ways in which people suffer consequences of alcohol abuse “second-hand.”

  1. Children born to mothers who drank excessively during pregnancy may suffer from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. In Germany, where this study was conducted, 41 children of every 10,000 births have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and another 177 fell on the spectrum for fetal alcohol syndrome without meeting full criteria. Data from the CDC suggests that the statistic in the U.S. appear lower, ranging from 2-15 children of every 10,000 births depending on the area of the United States. That is 2-15 children too many.
  2. Individuals involved in automobile accidents in which the other driver was driving under the influence of alcohol. The authors of the study noted that in Germany, alcohol contributes to 45% of traffic fatalities.  In the U.S. alcohol was involved in 26.4% of fatal crashes.
  3. People who experience violence secondary to another person whose aggressive behavior was fueled by alcohol. According to an NIH Alcohol Alert 42 percent of violent crimes reported to the police involved alcohol.

All in all, alcohol seems to have a huge second-hand effect. These three areas do not even include the emotional strain and physical pain experienced by children and families, the financial strain placed on families by one person’s drinking, or the amount of money lost by employers due to poor work following overdrinking. All this to say, if you find people complain about your drinking, your drinking hurts more than just you. It can result in traffic fatalities, illnesses, and aggression. Excessive drinking can harm your children and your spouse emotionally as well as physically. It may impact your children’s future dating life and even their marriages. It will impact the happiness of your spouse and your children. With all the damage that comes with excessive drinking, why not give it up? Why not show your family just how much you love them by giving up the drinking?

A Teen Epidemic & Containment

The epidemic of depression and suicide is spreading among our teens (13-18-years-old) like wildfire, especially among girls. Consider these statistics:

  • Suicide rate has increased 31% from 2010 to 2015 among teens. Even more disturbing, the suicide rate has increased 65% among adolescent girls over the same time period!
  • Symptoms of depression have increased 58% among girls from 2010 to 2015 (Excessive Screen Time Linked to Suicide Risk).

In searching for potential causes of this rapid increase in depression and suicidal rates among teens, researchers realized that cell phone ownership increased dramatically over the same time period. In 2012, about half of Americans owned a cell phone. By 2015, only 3 years later, 92% of teens and young adults owned one.  This does not mean that cell phones cause depression, but an association between does exist between the two. Interestingly, this same research does not reveal a link between homework load, academic pressure, or financial problems and the rapid rise in depression and suicidal rates among teens even though it looked for such links (The Risk of Teen Depression and Suicide is Linked to Smartphone Use, Study Says). On the other hand, the study did reveal that:

  • 13-18-year-olds who spend 3 or more hours a day on electronic devices are 35% more likely to exhibit a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour or less on electronic devices,
  • 13-18-year-olds who spend 5 hours or more a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide than those who spend only an hour on electronic devices.  
  • 48% of teens who spent 5 hours or more per day on electronic devices reported suicide-related behaviors compared to only 28% of teens who spent an hour or less on electronic devices. (OPEN LETTER FROM JANA PARTNERS AND CALSTRS TO APPLE INC.).

Fortunately, recognizing the link between electronic devices and depression and suicide offers us a way to contain the epidemic of depression and suicide rates among teens…not a complete cure, but a way to reduce the spread of an epidemic robbing us of our teens.  With that in mind, I offer four suggestions.

  1. Limit screen time to 2 hours per day or less. Our teens have not developed the skills to manage the addictive nature of electronic devices. (Perhaps many of us as adults have not developed those skills yet either.) Limiting screen-time to 2 hours per day keeps a teen in the area NOT associated with an increase in depressive symptoms or suicidal behaviors. This may involve teaching our teens to limit time spent on social media, turn off alerts, not spend down-time watching videos, limit video game time, and check social media less often. (For more, consider The Burden of a Smartphone.)
  2. Model limited use of electronic devices. We can’t expect our teens to use their devices less when they see us, their parents, wrapped up in our phones and devices. I thought I would never use electronic devices for 3 hours in a day. Surely, I was in the “safe zone.” Then Apple put “Screen Time” in the phone settings and my time usage started popping up. I discovered that I can easily average 3-4 hours per day on my smartphone! Clearly, I have to learn how to limit my time on the phone in order to model a healthy use of electronic devices to the children in my life. Do you?
  3. Encourage non-screen activities like sports, outdoor play and exercise, face-to-face interactions, church, non-screen hobbies, and family games. Teach your teens to have fun without screens. Let them learn by experience that face-to-face interactions are more enjoyable than social media, “real-life games” are more enjoyable than “virtual games,” and hands-on hobbies more enjoyable than screen-time games.
  4. Take a vacation from electronic devices. A study from UCLA noted that after only 5 days of a “device-free outdoor camp,” children performed better on tests for empathy than did a control group.  Another study showed that a month without Facebook led to greater happiness.  Take a vacation. Do it as a family and invest time previously spent on devices engaging in “real-time” interaction with one another and “real-life” experiences. (For more ideas, check out Don’t Let Them Take Over.)

We all have work to do in balancing our lives in a world where electronic devices impinge more and more on our daily lives. But the work we do to limit electronic devices in our lives and the lives our family members,’ could save a life…maybe even the life of your teen!

Bucking the Weaker Trend

According to a study conducted in Chelmsford, Essex, 10-year-olds reported a decline in physical activity between 2008 and 2014. The study’s authors believed this was the result of increased time on computers and greater parental concerns about children safety when engaging in “riskier” activities like climbing trees or wandering from home. 

“So what?” you might ask. “What’s the difference if children show a decrease in physical activity?”  The real concern is the consequences of this decrease in activity. To uncover the potential consequences of decreased activity, the study also looked at changes in height, weight, standing broad jump, sit-ups, handgrip, and arm-hang in 10-year-olds between the years of 1998 and 2014. Over that 16-year period (1998 through 2014), children have grown taller and their BMI has remained the same. However, they have experienced an overall 20% decrease in muscle strength and a 30% decrease in muscle endurance!  Children have become weaker. They have also become less tolerant of discomfort.

There is a way you can buck this trend though, a way to keep your children stronger and more tolerant of simple discomforts. Encourage them to engage in physical play outside. Give them significant household chores to complete. Encourage them to work with you in the yard or in the house. Let them experience the joys of hard work and the reward of completing a hands-on job. When they do these things, they will gain a greater sense of competence than any they can learn through video games. They will grow more aware of their body and be better able to maintain their own physical safety. They will acquire a stronger and healthier self-image than the self-image learned from watching television. They will grow stronger…not only physically but emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as well.  Then, maybe in another 16 years we will earn how 10-year-olds have not only grown taller but stronger.

Join Your Family in Song

My daughter was just learning to walk when we started singing “Go Down Moses” while dancing around the living room. My other daughter stood up to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as we solemnly buried a bird that had committed kamikaze against our front window. The toddler we babysat looked at me with anticipation and followed the directions of our impromptu lyrics calling her to step onto a small step and “jump” before laughing and asking to do it again.

When our children seem upset and begin to cry, we sing them a song to help them calm. When they can’t sleep, we sing them a lullaby. When they need to clean up their rooms, we might follow Barney’s cue and sing “Clean up, clean up….” We teach our children the alphabet through song. The list goes on. Music works wonders for a parent…and it continues working right through the teen years.

Children start remembering melodies as early as 5-months-old. At 11-months-old they are more receptive to a person singing a familiar song, even if that person is a stranger. Infants and children feel soothed by music and even begin to use music to calm themselves at a very young age. Who hasn’t heard their very young child, upset about having to take a nap, lying in their crib singing a song rather than crying? Even teens calm themselves through song.

Music brings us together. Whether we sing like a songbird or croak out a tune, it communicates that we are paying attention to the one we sing to and the ones we sing with. It signals that we are all part of the same group, we belong. Music draws us together and bonds us. It allows us to share emotions and even synchronizes us physically.

Why not use music in your family? Sing a song together. Listen to music together. Enjoy music together. Your family will love it. You will experience greater joy and intimacy with your family. Give it a try: “Sing. Sing a song. Make it simple to last the whole night long….” 

This Is Your Brain On Kindness

What can we learn about kindness from 36  studies and 1,150 fMRIs gathered over a 10-year period from people making kind decisions? Psychologists at the University of Sussex can answer that question. They analyzed the research of those 36 studies and split the acts of kindness into two categories: strategic kindness (kindness in which the person giving kindness gained a personal benefit) and altruistic kindness (kindness in which the person giving kindness did not gain a personal benefit in return). The research revealed that reward areas of the brain became more active when a person engaged in strategic kindness, kindness with the opportunity for the recipient to “return the favor.”   But wait. The same areas became activated when the person engaged in acts of kindness with no hope of a “return favor.” There was no hope for personal benefit in the act of altruistic kindness, but the reward centers of the brain still became more active. So, whether one engaged in strategic kindness or altruistic kindness, the reward centers of the brain became more active. It appears that engaging in deeds of kindness may be its own reward.

But wait. There’s more. (No, it’s not a ‘Chop-o-Matic.’) Activating the brain’s reward center represents the similarity between the two types of kindness. The research revealed a difference as well. In altruistic kindness even more areas of the brain became active. In other words, altruistic kindness did more than activate the reward centers of the brain; altruistic kindness activated even broader regions of the brain. Want to get your children’s brains active? Give them opportunities to engage in acts of kindness.

I realize we can activate the reward centers and other areas of our brain by engaging in any number of activities; but, might I suggest we engage the brains of our children and families by presenting opportunities to engage in kindness as a family. Maybe if we engage the reward centers of our family members’ brains with kindness and relationship, they will be less likely to engage them in harmful ways (like drug use).  And, engaging in kindness sounds like so much more fun! So, engage your brains and the brains of your children. Activate your reward centers. Enjoy the stimulation of your brain’s reward system. Engage in acts of kindness.

(If you’re stuck for ideas, read The Mighty Power of Kindness for Families or A Family Fun Night to Share Kindness.)

Who Needs a Prescription for Play?

I read an article that began by stating “A new paper in the journal Pediatrics summarizes the evidence for letting kids let loose.”  I thought, “Interesting.” The authors of this article went on to encourage pediatricians to write a “prescription for play” for their youngest patients. Why would they write a “prescription for play”? Because play, intrinsically motivated and unstructured fun, is disappearing from the lives of our children…and with it the benefits of play are disappearing from their lives. What are the benefits of play? Here are five benefits discussed in the article.

  • Play promotes brain development. Specifically, play promotes the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important for learning and growing healthy connections between neurons in the brain. In other words, play primes the brain for learning.
  • Play reduces obesity and diseases associated with obesity. Running, jumping, and climbing helps children build confidence in their physical ability. It helps them learn the limits of their body as well. Knowing the limits helps them remain safe (Let Them Take a Risk). The physical activity of play helps them develop into physically active and healthy adults. In fact, children who got the most outdoor time were 42% less likely to be overweight.
  • Play contributes to improved behavior and reduced stress. Children resolve traumatic events through play, working through the troubling aspects of the trauma so they can learn to “put it behind them” rather than let it intrude into their present lives. Obviously, this will reduce stress in the child’s life. Moreover, a study in which teachers engaged children in one-on-one play led to improved behavior in the children who engaged in play compared to a control group. (Investing Time & Attention in Your Children)
  • Play helps families to bond. Play brings people together. It helps us learn to listen and it teaches us to compromise. Play helps us attune to our children emotionally, mentally, and physically. This attunement allows us to help our children learn to manage their emotions in an effective manner. (Make Your Child a Head Taller Than Himself)
  • Play contributes to academic success. Play encourages language development, the exploration of ideas, the ability to delay gratification, and spatial relationships. Each of these skills contribute to academic success. Blocks encourage increased knowledge in putting words, ideas, or architectural materials together. Playing store promotes social skills, math, and negotiation skills. Imaginative play promotes storytelling and self-regulation. Physics, social skills, language development, storytelling, arithmetic, geometry, emotional regulation…it can all be found in play. And children learn it faster and better while playing. (Learn more in Have Fun AND Reduce Childhood Aggression.)

We could expand on this list of the benefits of play, but you get the idea. Let the children play. I’m not a pediatrician, but I am a “doctor” of psychology. So, if you need a prescription, here it is: “Your child is to engage in imaginative, unstructured play for at least one hour per day.” 

Follow that prescription and your children will flourish…and you could find yourself rejoicing in their growth and maturity!

A Medicine to Cure What Ails You

I am not a medical doctor, so I can’t prescribe medication. Generally, I don’t even promote medications except as a last resort. However, I so like this medication that I will promote it whole-heartedly. It’s a strong medicine that can cure what ails you.  It can release us from so much stress…and that means it can improve our health. The Miami Herald (2014) reported that “according to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress is linked to the six leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide. And more than 75% of all physician office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.” I fear we experience stress at an even higher rate today than when that article was written. But, the medicine I want to tell you about is strong enough to cure what ails you, especially when it comes to stress! It’s a medicine that we have used less and less in this era of texting, Instagram, Snapchat, and instant messaging; but is so powerful we need to start using it more again. What is this medicine? The human voice. Studies has shown just how powerful the human voice is for reducing stress and increasing positive emotions. In 2010, a group of researchers recruited mothers and daughters (7-12 years old) to take part in a study exploring how the voice reduces stress, decreases stress hormones, and increases oxytocin (the feel-good, bonding hormone). They found that being able to spend 15 minutes talking with their mother on the phone decreased cortisol (the stress hormone) and increased oxytocin as much as face-to-face physical contact with their mother. There is power in a mother’s comforting words. 

A second study in 2012 by the same researchers showed that a mother’s voice reduced cortisol and increased oxytocin while twice the amount of time instant messaging did not. A third study in 2017 with a different group of researchers explore the power of personal interaction, vocal interactions, and texting in reducing stress. No surprises. Interacting over the phone had a similar impact as face-to-face interaction. Both increased the stressed person’s sense of positive emotion. Texting did not. 

The human voice offering words of comfort and support can decrease stress and increase positive emotion leading to healthier lives. Texting, instant messaging, Instagram, and other social media cannot!

Like all medicine, the human voice does have negative side effects. (This is where you read in a softer, more inviting voice like the medication commercials do.) Using the human voice to yell can increase cortisol levels and so increase stress. It can create changes in the brain areas responsible for processing sounds and language, making them more vigilant, even hypervigilant and more likely to misinterpret the intent of people’s speech. Yelling can also increase symptoms of depression. With that said, (please return to your usual excited voice) the human voice is a medicine to cure what ails you. Here are some ways to use this medicine most effectively. First, stop texting, instant messaging, and posting opinions on face book. Instead:

  1. Use your human voice to offer encouragement. Cheer one another on to greater success.
  2. Use your human voice to offer words of comfort to those who are stressed. Talk to them and communicate understanding.
  3. Use your human voice to express love and affection. Compliment one another. Verbalize your love for one another.
  4. When you must discipline your children, refrain from yelling. State the limits and consequences in a neutral tone of voice. However, when your children do something you like, acknowledge it “with feelings” of love and adoration.
  5. If you find yourself yelling, stop using this medicine (the human voice) and seek professional help immediately (or just go calm down). If you start name-calling while using the human voice, stop immediately. As your mother said, “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all!”

The human voice, a medicine that can reduce stress and promote a longer, healthier lifestyle. That’s a medicine I can get behind! Ask your doctor about it today (Actually, forget asking your doctor. Just start using the human voice in a healthy way today!)

Fat Brain in Adolescents

The adolescent years represent a critical time in brain development. With that in mind, a recent study from Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center explored how a diet high in saturated fat impacts brain development in adolescents. To do so, they fed a diet high in saturated fats to a group of adolescent rats. They discovered that eating a diet high in saturated fat during adolescent years impacted areas of the brain associated with fear, anxiety, and stress clear into adulthood. Specifically, the rats consuming the high-saturated fat diet had more anxiety, an impaired startle response, and incorrectly assessed levels of threat. All of this made them more susceptible to higher levels of anxiety, stress, and even PTSD-related symptoms…even into adulthood! Of course, your children are not rats (no matter how frustrating they can be!). However, it is very likely that a diet high in saturated fat will have a very similar effect in the human brain (which is why we study it in rats).

This mean that the diet you feed your children and adolescents today will have a long reaching impact on their ability to manage anxiety and respond to stress in adulthood. If they eat a diet high in saturated fats, their ability to manage stress and anxiety effectively may be hindered. In the United States, the biggest sources of saturated fat in our diet are:

  • Pizza and cheese
  • Dairy desserts (like ice cream and whipped cream)
  • Red meat
  • Cookies and “other grain-based deserts” (like cakes)
  • Fast food

So, if you want your children to develop a stronger ability to manage stress, anxiety, and fear, avoid the adolescent fat brain by making a few changes to your family diet. Eat less pizza and more vegetables. Eat fewer cookies and more apples. Eat less ice cream and more carrots. Eat less red meat and more chicken, fish, and turkey. Eat less fast food and more home-cooked meals. (Here are other benefits of eating as a family at home.) Get started today!

Smartphones, Priorities, & Terrible Outcomes…Even for Parents?

You have likely read articles implicating the smartphone in various types of disasters, like car fatalities, bullying, marital problems, or physical accidents. You may have even watched videos of mishaps caused by smartphone usage, some funny and some disturbing. (That Was Awkward describes my own experience with cellphone distraction!) But did you ever think about how “smartphone distraction” impacts a parent’s ability to parent. An article entitled The Dangers of Distracted Parenting outlines some of the research showing how parental smartphone use impacts parent-child relationships and, as a result, child development. The author sites several studies. Some show outcomes as simple as child ER visits increasing as cellphone usage increased. Other studies suggested more disturbing outcomes for parental cellphone usage, like decreased verbal and non-verbal interactions with their children, increased negative behaviors as children make increasingly demanding bids for parental attention, and children’s decreased ability to learn language when a parent is on the phone. Over the long run, these outcomes translate into poorer academic achievement and poorer social skills if the parent develops a pattern of placing smartphone usage (sending/answering texts, playing games, checking news, etc.) over their relationship with their children.

I remember visiting a local amusement park and watching a father stand in line with his young son (maybe 5-years-old). The father was busy on his cellphone while his son tried desperately to get his father’s attention.(Read A Carnival of Parents for more.) At the time I thought the father was missing a wonderful opportunity to build a relationship with his son and communicate how much he valued his son. And, in fact, his son may have come to believe his father valued his cell phone, the person on the other end of the cell phone, or the game he played on the cell phone more than him. But, now I know that this father being distracted by his cellphone may have done even more damage. If this type of distraction became a consistent pattern, his son may have developed less effective social skills and exhibited poorer language skills.

This all  begs the question. What really is more important, your children or your phone? Of course, we all know our children are more important; but, do our actions coincide with that value? Or are we so addicted to our smartphones that they have become a wedge in our relationship with our children. I do know a way to put the question to rest once and for all, a way to discover if you cellphone has become so important in your life that it interferes with your relationship with your children. Put the phone away. I mean turn it off and put it in another room. Then, leave it in the other room while you enjoy dinner and an evening activity with your children, no smartphone even in sight. Then, make this practice a habit, a regular occurrence in the life of your family. Do it nightly or 3 times a week.  If doing this sounds hard, or even impossible, it’s very possible that your cellphone has become so important in your life that it’s interfering with your relationship with your children. Don’t let it happen. Take action now. (You have a superpower to use against this problem. Learn about it in A Sense of Belonging “Phubbed”)

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