Down-aging disease

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2012

Strokes, heart attacks and type 2 diabetes used to be diseases of old age. That is no longer true. Each of these life-shattering disorders is occurring in younger and younger victims. In light of this reality we have to contemplate the likelihood that today's teenagers will experience "senile" dementia and hip fractures during middle age. At least in the case of osteoporosis-related hip fractures, there is clear evidence that this is not mere conjecture. Fractures are on the rise in children. "Middle-age" dementia may be on the near horizon.

High blood pressure, stroke and type 2 diabetes are all on the increase among children and the common denominator is obesity. Hypertension and diabetes develop slowly and may progress without symptoms for years but when stroke occurs it is sudden and devastating. In only 12 years from 1995 to 2007, stroke increased by a staggering 51 percent among men aged 15 through 34. It rose by 17 percent among women of the same age.

Type 2 diabetes is following the same disheartening trajectory. It was extremely rare only two generations ago but it now represents about half of all childhood diabetes. It is no longer rare for physicians to encounter the worst complications of diabetes, blindness, amputations and kidney failure in patients not yet 30 years of age.

Nearly 1,000 Americans die of a heart attack every day and for roughly half of them sudden death is the first symptom. Not only are heart attacks occurring among younger persons, the trend is especially noticeable among women.

Women are also more likely to experience a hip fracture. Obesity is not to blame for this disorder but inactivity is. The current generation of young women faces a fracture-prone future. More than half of today's teenagers do not engage in even a few hours a week of moderately intense physical activity. Their grandmothers may not have been interested in athletics but at least they walked or rode bicycles almost every day.

If there is one factor that is most to blame for this down-aging of disease it is inactivity. Excess calories, too many soft drinks and too few veggies are contributing factors but lots of exercise can dampen the effect of those poor lifestyle habits. There are many reasons why children get too little exercise, including reduction in P.E. classes, concerns about safety and exclusion from organized sports. It's time to remove these barriers.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.