Would you be shocked if your young child was diagnosed with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, liver disease or diabetes?
The fact is that chronic diseases have reached almost epidemic proportions in Newfoundland and Labrador. One shocking statistic from the 2011 provincial government report “Improving Health Together” is that around 61 per cent of people over the age of 12, have at least one chronic disease. And that’s not all – nearly one third of that group has three or more chronic diseases.
Anne Wareham, psychologist and program lead of the provincial Janeway Lifestyle Program (JLP), and her colleagues, see more and more at-risk children every day. An at-risk child is one who has been identified by their health-care provider as having a chronic disease or is at high risk of developing a chronic disease.
To mark National Child Day, which takes place each year on November 20, I sat down with Anne to talk about things parents can do to safeguard their children’s health – and how the Janeway Lifestyle Program can help.
What can parents do to ensure their children are as healthy as they can be?
While good health is possible at any age, it’s especially important for parents to start their children on the journey to health when they are very young, before risk factors can develop. As children get older, parents have less control over their children’s lifestyle and habits may be hard to change. Small positive habits established early in life can have a tremendous positive long-term health impact.
If we can make evidence-based information and supports available to parents, especially those of pre-school children, we can prevent many risk factors from developing and even prevent or delay the onset of chronic diseases.
That’s one of the reasons we’ve produced educational videos , initially created for our community program, and now available to the general public on the Eastern Health website.
Is there a difference between health and weight?
I’ll start by saying that there are many contributing factors to overall health such as genetics, income, housing, access to fresh foods, to name a few. Many of these things are beyond the control of individuals.
Weight may be a contributing factor in the development of chronic disease – but not always.
For so many years, weight has been the main focus area in determining health. Thankfully, that mindset has begun to shift because of overwhelming evidence in the field. Many of us still judge a book by its cover, when we really need to focus on what’s in the book.
My watershed ‘weight moment’ came at clinic one day a few years ago. I was working with a parent who had two children, both of whom had had blood-work done that morning. One, with a larger body size, had blood-work done for the JLP. The other, with a tall and lanky body-type, had blood-work done for another reason. When the results came back, it turned out the child with the larger body size had perfect blood work – no risk factor at all, while the tall, lanky child had high cholesterol.
What do you think is the main barrier to both physical and mental health?
The “Blame Game” causes a lot of damage. Blaming ourselves, blaming others, feeling guilty and inadequate. We’ve been conditioned from an early age by big business, the media and others to feel dissatisfied with ourselves so they can sell us the remedy or dictate how we should look or feel.
As a result, kids have been exposed to a lot of blame and shame. For example, weight-based bullying is one of the main reasons that children are bullied in high-school. So helping people appreciate differences and diversity in body size is critical. We need to help kids to feel good about who they are, exactly as they are, and this will help them make the healthiest choices that they can.
I’ve worked with parents who not only feel guilty about their child’s condition, but have been blamed by family members and the community. In so many ways, blame and guilt get in the way of caring for ourselves and are counter-productive.
I need to be really clear that the parents I work with in this program are some of the best parents I know, which is very humbling to me as a parent myself. So to think that parents of kids with risk factors are bad parents, is wrong.
We can probably all be better parents. Given the right conditions, we can all eat better. We can all be more active. We can all live a healthier lifestyle. Living a healthy life is not limited to any particular sub-set of the population. It’s for everybody.
So how do we avoid the blame game?
Educate yourself, your family and your children. Our videos can help. One popular one, developed based on a question commonly asked in group sessions is, “Why am I Bigger than my Friends?”
If you could name one thing a parent can do to reduce health risks to their child, what would it be?
Our dietitian sees an awful lot of families who feel that juice is a healthy thing to have – and it is fine, in small doses. But juice – even 100 per cent fruit juice – is high in sugar and your body can’t tell the difference. And fruit juice, as opposed to real fruit, doesn’t have the benefit of fibre to slow absorption by the body. Juice is basically a sugar-hit and the role sugar plays in the development of diabetes and insulin resistance is significant.
How can a parent find out if their child is high-risk?
The simple answer is to see your health-care provider or family physician. Information about our referral process can be found on the JLP website.
How does the Janeway Lifestyle Program help at-risk children and their families?
Our mission is to empower all families in the province to be able to eat well, be active and feel good. On the Avalon Peninsula, we have a comprehensive clinic and group program for children who have been identified with a risk factor. We also offer services to families across the province. In addition to extensive resources on the JLP website, we manage two provincial programs.
Through the Traveling Consultation Clinic, the JLP works with families and health-care professionals who treat children who are at risk of developing a chronic disease. The JLP travels to each regional health authority in the province every 18 months.
The Good Health for EveryBODY Program is a parent education program that was developed for community leaders in all areas of NL to offer to parents of preschoolers in their region.
At the Janeway Lifestyle Program, we work collaboratively with parents and children in helping them to live the healthiest life they can – that is our goal. That’s how we promote change that lasts – anything else is temporary. And it looks different in each family! We do not expect every family to do X, Y and Z. We are the experts in our area of healthy living, but they are the experts on their family.
We all want our next generation to be as heathy as it can be.
This story was written by Robyn Lush, a communications specialist with Eastern Health’s Corporate Communications Department.