The Decline of the Healthy Lifestyle

May 27, 2009

As medical professionals, how can you tell individuals to adopt a healthy lifestyle when there is practically no support for that behavior in American culture?

A new study published in the latest issue of Pediatrics suggests that 11% of pertussis cases can be directly attributed to parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children. Given the recent rise of pertussis cases in the country, I would have guessed it a little higher. Still, it emphasizes the need of parents to seriously reconsider the idea that their children are protected from diseases by virtue of their classmates’ vaccinations.

Speaking of vaccines, WHO is reportedly delaying recommendations regarding pandemic flu vaccines until more is known about the spread of H1N1 virus. I know several people putting off taking their children on international trips this summer specifically due to anxiety about the swine flu, but health experts seem to feel that the flu may be more of a threat this winter.

Other news that struck me this week has to do with lifestyle, and I’m bringing this up specifically because I found my 8-year-old typing away on my laptop the other night at bed time. Not that this is a particularly unusual event—she likes to write short stories using Microsoft Word–but she couldn’t be bothered with a bath and sleep, because she had “important work to do.” Where had she heard that before? Well, me. And her father. And her playmates’ parents. This makes studies like the one coming out next month in the American Journal of Medicine kind of disconcerting.

As medical professionals, how can you tell individuals to adopt a healthy lifestyle when there is practically no support for that behavior in American culture? Granted, the current state of the economy has likely made it worse, but it was bad to begin with. We know that not sleeping is detrimental to our health, but we celebrate putting work before rest. The business environment encourages people to eat on the run instead of taking a lunch (or dinner) break. Virtually everyone I know takes business calls during vacation. Not long ago, my own physician discussed an exercise regimen with me, and made recommendations regarding the time I should be investing each week. She ended the conversation with a “good luck with that.”

Child-rearing adults are carrying an increasing number of financial burdens and responsibilities. And regardless of the number of studies that tell us our behaviors are unhealthy, we’re still demonstrating to our children that existing without sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition is a desirable thing.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s time for a public discussion that goes beyond advising people that they need to change their habits. Change won’t happen without support for it. Should this be a part of the conversation during our healthcare system reform?