How Kids’ Bad Habits Lead to Adult Health Crises

Those little habits you learn as a kid could come back to bite you as an adult. Learn from these experts why it’s so important to teach kids healthy habits, before they become a statistic.

Sneaking a smoke or drink. Supersizing that burger order. Trading outdoor play for indoor media entertainment. Taking a risk.
It can start so innocently – isn’t that what childhood is all about? But those seemingly innocuous choices can turn into habits that influence and even shorten a lifetime.
It’s estimated that about 6,000 children start smoking every day. They may end up in a doctor’s office as older adults, or even as 20-somethings. George Tzelepis, MD, an internal medicine doctor at FHN who is also board-certified in pulmonary diseases, sees both.
“I treat many patients for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),” Tzelepis says. “Nearly every patient with COPD is or was a former smoker. I’m beginning to see more women between 50 and 70 years of age who admit they started smoking when they were teenagers, and now have lung cancer or COPD. The bad news is that lung cancer, which is the most preventable cause of death, has surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of death in women diagnosed with cancer.”
Tzelepis explains that, decades ago, teens who smoked wanted to look cool, to be considered risk-takers. Today they realize smoking contributes to many serious diseases, but feel incapable of quitting. He estimates that half of his patients have smoking-related diseases; about 30 percent have obesity-related respiratory problems.
“People underestimate the highly addictive properties of nicotine,” Tzelepis says. “Only 5 to 7 percent are able to quit smoking cold turkey. There’s less than a 40-percent success rate for those who take medications in an effort to quit smoking. And patients with lung diseases usually have more difficulty quitting, as they are more nicotine-dependent.”
One common misconception is how smoking cessation can impact a person’s lifespan, says Tzelepis. People who stop smoking by age 30 can expect a normal lifespan with less chance of related major disease. By the time patients reach their 60s, however, quitting only adds about three years to their expected lifespans.
“Overall, men smokers lose about 13 years of life, while women smokers lose more than 14 years if they continue to smoke at the same rate as they did in their teens and 20s,” he says. “Although the lung function of those who quit may improve in a period of a few months to a year, it may take about 10 years for their chances of developing lung cancer to decrease by 50 percent. Still, every single day that a person doesn’t smoke, counts. It takes years to see the benefits, just as it takes years to see the damage.”
Smoking cessation also lowers blood pressure, decreases the odds for heart attack and stroke, and improves quality of life. For those who believe smoking filtered cigarettes makes the habit less risky, Tzelepis points out there’s no real difference in smoking filtered or unfiltered cigarettes or cigars. However, the difference may show up in what types of cancer smokers contract.
FHN offers SmokeBrakers, an individualized, intensive smoking cessation class structured to the individual participant. Group options are also available. The class costs $60 and no referral is necessary.
Alcohol and substance abuse also may be rooted in childhood and adversely affect quality and length of life. Beverly Wilson is a licensed professional counselor at Mercy Options Behavioral Health Clinics in Janesville and Walworth, Wis. She’s spent 32 years helping people age 10 through senior citizen to overcome addictions.
“The trend over the past few years has been helping clients who have a chronic addiction problem that started as early as 10 or 11 years of age,” Wilson explains. “Typically, teens 13 to 14 experiment with marijuana and alcohol as a result of wanting to belong, being bored, etc. However, for a significant number of clients, the habit started with their parents, particularly alcohol. The parents have their own addiction issues, didn’t educate their children on the dangers of substance abuse or, quite frankly, were just absent from their child’s life. However, it’s important not to blame the addiction problem on parenting. I’ve seen many clients who have had loving parents who are heartbroken when their loved one struggles with addiction.”
Each patient has a unique story, so generalizations are inadequate, Wilson says. It’s vital to search for underlying conditions such as depression, anxiety, physical and sexual abuse, and prescription overuse because of chronic pain. Educational, vocational and legal problems must be dealt with, too.
“The first step is to let them know that we’re not going to pin a label on them,” Wilson says. “Our Mercy Options team networks with other resources internally as well as within the community to help each client according to their specific needs.”
In cases of prescription overuse, Wilson often hears patients sob, “This is so not me.”
Access to a psychiatrist or physician with experience treating addiction is imperative, says Wilson. In fact, with any addiction to a mood-altering substance, it can be life-threatening to attempt to quit without medical intervention. Most people don’t realize that detoxification from alcohol, for example, may cause seizures or other serious complications. A thorough assessment conducted by a licensed professional is critical.
“We’re not here to judge, and we emphasize how very critical it is to be honest with your provider,” Wilson says. “Only then can true recovery begin. Many of the clients we deal with will attempt to rationalize or minimize their use. Some say that they’re only using marijuana or some other drug recreationally. They want to argue about consequences from family members, friends, employers, society and the legal system being unfair. This is a waste of time – precious time.”
Wilson says addiction leaves patients feeling empty, without purpose or goals. It also draws them away from family and propels them toward people with similar addictions, often leading to illegal activities to finance their addictions.
“Despair and loneliness are often a reccurring theme,” Wilson emphasizes. “They tell me they’re seeking happiness and relief from mental, emotional and spiritual pain.”
These feelings cause patients to turn on themselves, Wilson says. They want to strike out and hurt others, but end up hurting themselves, too. Blaming their upbringing and life’s injustices keeps them stuck in the vicious cycle of addiction.
“For a significant percentage of my clients, something else is the real culprit,” Wilson says. “There are no simple solutions. Recovery takes time.”
Wilson is seeing more deaths from overdoses and alcohol-related conditions than ever before.
“Our team always encourages clients to get connected with a support system through 12-step recovery groups like AA, NA and Al-Anon, or church support groups, family and friends who will support recovery. Ideally, it’s best to incorporate more than just one source of support. Counseling alone is not the answer. If you’re seeing a therapist, that person should encourage you to build a strong support network.”
The addict isn’t the only person impacted by addiction. “We encourage family members to get help and continue with support regardless of whether the alcoholic or addict continues with their sobriety,” Wilson says. “Addiction is devastating to family members and friends. This problem will overwhelm you if you try to deal with it alone. Being part of a support network will help you to experience hope, peace and even joy, in the midst of what can feel like a completely hopeless situation.”
Overeating is as hazardous to children as it is to adults, and the growing number of overweight children is causing more and more childhood health problems. If not addressed, this lifestyle pattern can affect every aspect of a child’s life, detracting from the joy of childhood and decreasing the odds for a healthy adulthood. Dr. Mark Hornbach is a board-certified pediatrician at Rockford Health Physicians with a strong interest in childhood obesity. But please don’t call it that, he says.
“‘Obesity’ is a clinical term that often turns off parents and children,” Hornbach explains. “There’s sometimes an aspect of denial. The term ‘overweight’ is more accepted by many. Body mass index (BMI) is a measurement ratio of weight to height. Obesity is a BMI of greater than the 95th percentile and overweight is defined as having a BMI of 85 to 95 percentile. Two-thirds of us are overweight or obese and it often starts in childhood.”
Most overweight children have the same problem adults do – an imbalance of lifestyle, nutrition and activity.
“We’re not as active as we could be,” Hornbach says. “Media is a big factor. A child between the ages of 8 and 18 averages 7.5 hours of media a day. Today’s children are less active, and playing outside has decreased, including sports participation. Coupled with that is our diet, which has more calorie-dense foods and less fruits and vegetables.”
At school, tight budgets usually dictate what the cafeteria offers, and lunch hours are shorter. Advertising messages encourage the consumption of high-calorie, low-nutrition foods and beverages, and fast food restaurants are happy to super-size portions.
The consequences of being overweight or obese may include Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obstructive sleep apnea, muscle and joint disorders and some cancers.
Hornbach advocates for lifestyle changes that better balance activity and nutrition.
“If parents and children fail to understand and appreciate a proper balance in lifestyle, our current trend will not change,” he says. “Being overweight or obese can become a legacy that affects everyone in the family.”
Overweight young patients are sometimes referred to Christine Gillette, a pediatric dietitian certified in pediatric weight management at Rockford Health System. She says the number of overweight children in the 2- to 5-year-old bracket has doubled in the past 30 years; in the 6- to 19-year-old bracket it has tripled.
“We need to all pull together to teach children and their parents what it really takes to get overweight issues under control,” Gillette says. “When I meet with a new patient, I determine where the family is at for learning. Some families don’t know why they’re there to see me, while others state, ‘I am fat and need to lose weight.’ This breaks my heart to hear. However, it also allows me to assist them with eating healthier and enjoying life. Typically, most clinics give out a ton of written material that can be overwhelming. If you’re overwhelmed, you tend not to do anything to change the behavior.”
And change takes time.
“I emphasize to families that nothing happens overnight,” says Gillette. “I’ve seen patients and their families for years before that ‘aha’ moment occurs, and they really, finally get it.”
Gillette listens closely to what her patients are telling her. She takes into consideration factors such as culture, budget constraints, family dynamics and social interaction. Then she helps them set realistic goals. 
“The solution for weight management begins with the mindset for behavior lifestyle change,” Gillette says. “There is no diet or magic pill to aide with lifelong weight management. For children, the goal is to grow into their body’s height. However, children are consuming an excessive amount of calories from fast food and super-sized drinks.”
Proper portion sizes are important to controlling weight. But how do children learn about this if no one knows what a portion really is? This is where education with a dietitian comes into play. Change is difficult, but can be achieved with persistence and support.
Sedentary habits can be changed, too. Human bodies are designed for vigorous physical exercise on a regular basis. With the advent of TV and entertainment media, even the very young are trading outdoor run-and-tumble play for indoor sit-down activities.
Jill Trojniar, a personal trainer and exercise specialist for Beloit Health System’s NorthPointe Health & Wellness Campus, sees the tendency toward less active pastimes in younger and younger children.
“When we look at preteens, ages 8 to 10, who are more into sedentary lifestyle, we see the same adverse health issues that affect sedentary adults, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure and juvenile diabetes,” Trojniar says.
She points out that American Center for Disease Control guidelines recommend moderate to intense exercise for an average of 150 minutes per week, or about a one half-hour five days a week. Most people don’t get 30 minutes of exercise on a daily basis.
“It’s just not happening for a broad section of our youth,” Trojniar says. “With both parents working, there’s no one home to encourage children toward a more active lifestyle. Add the enticement of computer games, Facebook and YouTube, and it’s no surprise that today’s youngsters are significantly less active than those growing up 20 to 30 years ago.”
Trojniar has witnessed permanent damage in sedentary clients as young as teenagers, which compounds other negative lifestyle choices. “We call this metabolic syndrome, a combination of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and increased blood glucose, which can ultimately lead to heart disease, strokes and diabetes, as well as reduced life expectancy,” she says.
“Adding to the problem of childhood sedentary behavior is the fact that not all states require physical education, which means these children aren’t getting any exercise at school, either.”
On a positive note, Trojniar says the effects of this bad habit can be turned around in relatively short order.
“It’s hard to say how quickly a person can see positive results when he or she begins to exercise on a regular basis,” she says. “A lot depends on risk factors because of their health, extra body fat and other factors. But I would estimate that within four to six months on an individual exercise plan, a person can improve balance, muscular and skeletal strength, and endurance.
“It also helps them to avoid lung and respiratory problems, cardiac impairment, poor circulation and much more. Another plus is the boost their self-esteem and confidence receives from being more active.”
Often without obvious symptoms to warn children they’re headed toward poor health, bad habits can steal the joy and productivity from life, and even cut it short. Public awareness and education, coupled with common sense, can positively affect the life of a child forever. The time to start is now.