Eating, Drinking, and Being Merry: Taking Care of the Family

PJ Hamel Health Guide November 01, 2012
  • Everyone likes to relax and take some time off at the holidays, right? But how can you – when you’re in that “sandwich” generation that’s still minding kids, AND keeping an eagle eye on aging parents? Well, you can’t be everything to everybody; don’t even try. But this holiday season, in the midst of all the celebrations, take a moment to remind kids (and cajole parents) about one piece of their health that can make or break a person, literally: bones.

     

    You know that everyone – even babies – is at risk of poor bone health, right?

     

    Oh, you didn’t know that? You thought osteoporosis was only something you worried about when you were, like, 85 years old? 

     

    And if you’re a guy? No worries at all. Men don’t get osteoporosis, that’s a woman’s disease.

     

    Wrong. And wrong again.

     

    Osteoporosis – severe weakening of the bones, often leading to fracture – can happen at any age. 

     

    Yes, it’s much more likely to be found in women; only about 20% of those diagnosed with osteoporosis are men. And your risk increases with age; the #1 risk factor for osteoporosis is being a senior citizen.

     

    But that doesn’t mean you can simply ignore the disease until you’re 70 years old – and you already have it. Especially since you might have been able to prevent it, had you known the risk factors and what to do about them earlier in life.

     

    So, let’s start with the kids. The chief osteoporosis risk factors for young people are drinking; and failure to consume enough calories (usually with athletes; though sometimes as a result of an eating disorder or other medical condition). 

     

    Parents of college kids, when they’re home for Thanksgiving and getting ready to party hearty with their old high school pals, clue them in on a little-known fact: teenage binge drinking significantly increases the risk of osteoporosis later in life.   

     

    It’s very unlikely you’re going to prevent your kids from drinking, if they’re so inclined. But just let them know: continual heavy drinking, night after night (or even weekend after weekend) is robbing them of the bone growth they should be experiencing throughout their 20s. 

     

    Once you hit 30 years old, you’re pretty much done; your bones stop gaining mass, and gradually start to deteriorate. So the stronger your bones as you head into your 30s, the less chance you’ll have of experiencing a devastating hip or spinal fracture when you’re in your 70s.

     

    It’s a hard sell, I know. But just put a bug in their ear. You may not think they’re listening, but kids can often surprise you – you have more influence than you believe.

     

    But then, maybe your teenage daughter isn’t a drinker at all. Far from it – she’s a super-athlete, a young woman devoted to her sport and exercising hours each day, 7 days a week. She’s in tip-top shape – no need to worry about her health, right?

  •  

    Unfortunately, young women at the peak of fitness are often doing hidden damage to their bones. As a result of burning too many calories and consuming too few, these elite athletes are simply not getting the nutrition they need for optimal bone health. 

     

    Young female athletes at risk for osteoporosis are typically those in the most aerobically challenging sports: runners, speed skaters, cross country skiers, rowers. And also, ironically, gymnasts – while their sport itself helps bones by stressing them in a controlled way (e.g., jumping), it also values a lithe, thin figure – which can only be attained through calorie control.

     

    And it’s not only the super-fit who raise their osteoporosis risk: it’s the super-thin as well. If you suspect your daughter has an eating disorder, please try to persuade her to get some help; she’s doing more harm to herself than she knows.

     

    Bottom line: Inform your son that the two six-packs he downs Saturday night may be doing more than giving him a buzz. Let your super-athlete daughter know, when she’s done with her workout, that “calories in” is just as important as “calories out.” And if you have a daughter who believes “you can never be too thin” – you need to have a serious conversation about body image and health. 

     

    And what about your parents? 

     

    If your mom (and/or dad) are visiting over the holidays, make sure your house is as “fall-proof” as possible. That means no loose scatter rugs; no low objects in the “flight path” between kitchen and living room and bathroom; and plenty of what they need within (low) arm’s reach – they may think they can climb on top of a chair to reach the extra soap in the bathroom closet, but why let them take the risk? While they’re on site, just move it down a couple of shelves.

     

    And, since we were talking about drinking – seniors are at the opposite end of the spectrum from teens, as far as the relationship between alcohol and bone health. 

     

    Recent studies show that older folks’ bones actually benefit from a moderate amount of daily alcohol. Two beers for men, or a glass of wine for women, actually increase bone mass in seniors. 

     

    So while Dad and the kids are gathered around the TV watching football, offer him a glass of cold beer to go with the snacks.  

     

    And while you and Mom are in the kitchen readying a holiday feast, break out the wine – a single glass will help calm any holiday stress for you, and will be a bone-healthy a plus for her. 

     

    Eat (enough), drink (moderately), and be (emphatically, unabashedly) merry – happy holidays!