Helping kids lay a foundation for lifelong health

By Dr. Graham A. Colditz
Siteman Cancer Center

Summer officially arrived last month, and it feels especially welcome. After a very long 16 months since the pandemic started, life is beginning to return to normal, as COVID-19 vaccination gains ground and rates of infections continue to drop. And while we still have a way to go before we can put the pandemic fully behind us, getting to enjoy the long, warm days of summer feels like a well-deserved reward for how far we’ve come.

As usual, no group may be happier about summer than kids. After yet another disrupted school year, most are likely ready for a good, long break and hopefully a return to more normal routines.

Though it may not be at the top of their list, an important part of that return-to-normal for our kids can be helping them get back on track with, or build upon, important healthy behaviors. Over the short term, this can help give a boost to their well-being as we begin to come out of the pandemic. Over the long term, it can help lay a foundation for overall health and even a lower risk of cancer in adulthood.

Many lifelong habits that help protect against cancer begin in childhood. And because youth is a unique time of growth and development, some behaviors and exposures during these early years can impact cancer risk later in life.

Help the children, adolescents and teens in your life with these healthy behaviors:

• Being sun safe and avoiding indoor tanning. Enjoying time outside is one of the great parts of summer, but being smart about it is key. Youth and teens are especially vulnerable to skin damage from the sun, so help them find shade, use sunscreen and wear sun-protective clothes, like long-sleeved shirts and wide-brimmed hats. Indoor tanning is also risky and should be avoided.

• Eating a healthy diet. The quality of kids’ eating habits can slip in the summer. So, this can be a good time to help them choose foods rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and steer them away from red meat, fast food, high-calorie snacks and sugary drinks. This is good for both overall health and healthy growth. When kids are old enough, also discuss the dangers of alcohol with them. Among other problems, drinking increases the risk of a number of adult cancers.

• Fitting in physical activity and limiting screen time. Regularly give kids the opportunity to be active. A good goal is 60 minutes per day. But any amount is better than none. It’s also important to think about kids’ screen time, which is a good marker for how much time they spend sitting. Time with phones, tablets and TVs kicked up dramatically when much of our lives turned virtual during the pandemic. With health restrictions now starting to lift, it’s a good time to begin to reset our relationships with our screens.

• Getting the HPV vaccine. The HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine is a standard childhood vaccine that protects against six adult cancers. Recommended for both boys and girls ages 9 to 12 years old, it can also be given to teens and young adults. If the vaccine isn’t offered at your child’s regular vaccine appointment, be sure to ask about it.

It’s been a strange and often stressful pandemic for kids and parents, alike. So, be sure to take any healthy changes slowly. Try to set realistic goals and then build up bit by bit from there. And know that even small changes can have important benefits – and for years to come.

It’s your health, and your family’s health. Take control.

(Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.)


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