Pithy quotations often provide motivating inspiration for these columns. Here’s one often attributed to former British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.” A second inspiration – if we can call it that – comes from this astonishing statistic: 92.5% of adult Americans show up with increased risk for heart disease … 92.5%!
What does this mean exactly? Well, might it mean that something essential that could have happened for more than nine out of ten Americans when they were kids, didn’t? Something that should have, or could have made a significant difference later on in their adult lives?
According to a number of respected neurologists, what happens shortly after conception until we acquire language takes on lifelong implications, whether we realize it or believe it or not. This period of profound neurological growth and integration influences how robust and interconnected our neural network will become later on. It will also determine how well we manage fear and anxiety as children and adults, how strong our immune systems become, which people we can easily be friends and hang with, what kinds of work in the world become even imaginable. So might it be that what more than nine out of ten kids didn’t get in order to not be at risk for heart disease is an environment optimized for robust neural development?
To foster such development, in the world of my health care reform, every parent in America would get government aid from conception through the first three years of a child’s life! Along with an intensive course of study in how their own brains work and how the brains of their children can be supported and encouraged to develop optimally. One model might be what Geoffrey Canada does with Baby College and the Harlem Children’s Zone, where pregnant women are contacted before they give birth and their children are continuously engaged with until they graduate from college. My prediction is that answering The Big Brain Question “Yes!” for parents and children in this way will more than pay for itself in reduced health care costs over the lifespan, which, as many gerontologists predict will be increasing at an accelerated pace. Roughly half of today’s baby boomers will reach age 100 in good health and the average lifespan in 2050 is projected to be …150 years!
Teaching Kids to Cheat Death
Anyway, here are the five measures for increased heart disease risk that the above statistic is based upon:
* Never smoked or former smoker;
* Total cholesterol below 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) and not using cholesterol-lowering drugs;
* Blood pressure below 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) without using blood pressure-lowering medication;
* Not overweight or obese, as reflected in a body mass index (BMI) less than 25 kg/m2; and
* Never diagnosed with diabetes.
I’m guessing that directly admonishing or instructing kids in behaviors intended to remedy these conditions will produce only minimally improved results. Better to approach these issues as Geoffrey Canada does or indirectly, through imagery, play and role modeling. And environment. I’d be willing to bet that the early environments, both at home and at school, of the 7.5% of the adults free of heart disease risk were significantly different than the majority of us. I’d bet that there were few or no people modeling cigarette smoking, that considerable time and thought went into meal planning and preparation and that exercise and play were a natural part of every day. In other words, these kids were taught early on how to cheat death. One simple thing that Canada found was that teaching parents to speak to children often and with positive intent, produced significant outsized benefits.
The Lie in the Statistic
Not everyone in the 92.5% of the population identified in this cohort is actually going to contract heart disease, of course. Being at risk simply means the odds aren’t even. And in the end, 100% of us are going to die of the exact same thing anyway: oxygen deprivation to the brain. Since that’s not going to happen for many of today’s kids for another 150 years, we might as well do everything in our power to make sure those fifteen decades are powered with great strength of heart.