The truth is, you are faced with life-and-death choices every day, even though you may not realize it. For teens especially, the decisions may not seem as clear-cut as what to do Saturday night or what college to try for, but many of your daily choices can make a big difference today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life.
The Hit Parade
According to the latest government statistics (1990), the rankings for Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 are strikingly (and shockingly) different: Number one by a landslide (16,241 deaths that year) is accidents, with motor vehicle accidents making up more than three-quarters of that number. Homicide follows with 7,354 deaths, and suicide comes in third with 4,859. There is a dramatic falloff between these three and the next seven, beginning with cancer, which claimed 1,819 lives in your age group in 1990.
Thinking About Tomorrow
The big three for teens are considered by health officials to be “external causes,” which means these are the ones you can do most to avoid. It’s not a matter of catching a disease or succumbing to a deadly condition that has taken years to develop or one you may even have inherited from your ancestors. Although your choices matter to some degree for most of the other seven (so-called natural causes), you have a lot more control over the external causes.
Choosing not to smoke (or to quit if you’ve begun) and eating a low-fat, high-fiber diet can go a long way toward avoiding the killers. Exercise (which reduces stress while it burns off that double-fudge sundae) is another choice you can make–the earlier in life the better. Avoiding alcohol and other addictive substances reduces the risk for many diseases and is the best defense against accidental death and car crashes. And the best thing about those choices is that, as you will see, they’re general all-around risk reducers.
It’s hard to keep an eye on the future when there’s so much to think about and do today, but that’s part of growing up, of becoming independent, of taking charge of your own life.
Let’s take a look at each of these killers to learn something about how they operate and what you can do to give them the slip.
1. Heart disease kills more than 700,000 Americans every year. Most of them are over 35 years old, with the greatest number dying when they are 75 or older. But because most heart disease takes years to develop, think of it as a disease of old age that begins in adolescence–even in childhood.
The major risk factors are male gender, age, heredity, smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and stress. You can’t do anything to change the first three factors, but there’s a lot you can do about the rest. Exercise, eating right, and not smoking are the important choices here.
2. There are 100 different types of cancers. What they have in common is that abnormal cells develop and multiply, eventually overwhelming normal cells and the body’s ability to fight invaders.
The greatest killer cancer among people of all ages is lung cancer. For women, breast and colon cancers come next; for men, colon and prostate cancers are second and third. Even though you might think of cancer as mostly a disease of adults, cancers that kill young people include leukemia (a cancer of the blood), Hodgkin’s disease (the immune system cancer that has stricken hockey great Mario Lemieux), and bone and brain cancers.
Medical scientists don’t know the causes of all cancers or all of the causes of any cancer, but there is evidence that genetics and exposure to environmental poisons are among the culprits. Remember the all-around risk reducers? Since lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death and smoking is considered responsible for 87 percent of all lung cancers, shunning tobacco looks like a pretty wise choice. (Snuff and chewing tobacco can promote cancers of the mouth and throat, so these are certainly not safe alternatives.) Recent studies tell us that even being around smokers puts a person at risk for developing lung cancer and other lung diseases, which means the choices friends make matter, too.
A low-fat, high-fiber diet can help protect you from colon cancer. Alcohol, nitrites (found in smoked and preserved meats), and fats are suspects in other cancers too, so limiting these is a health choice.
Avoiding excessive sun exposure and wearing sunscreen and protective clothing can decrease the chances of skin cancer. And asking your doctor to show you how to examine your skin, your breasts (for girls), and your testicles (for boys) will help detect cancers that might be developing at an early stage when they are most curable. In fact, doctors say they have a good chance of “checking” Mario Lemieux’s Hodgkin’s disease because it was discovered early.
3. Stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted. A blood clot or a break in a blood vessel could be responsible. Strokes are more common among older people, but they can happen to young people, too. The risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, smoking, alcohol, and obesity. This is another case where your choices can reduce your overall risk.
4. Accidental deaths include many events, such as falls, drownings, diving mishaps, and deaths by fires, but by far the greatest number involve motor vehicles. Among Americans of all ages, car crashes represented more than half the accidental deaths that occurred in 1990; among those ages 15 to 24, they accounted for 78 percent!
You probably already know the choices you can make to reduce your risk of accidental death:
* Use safety equipment: seat belts and helmets for biking, motorcycling, skating, skate-boarding, contact sports.
* Stay away from alcohol and drugs, always, but especially when you are driving or operating machinery of any kind, or swimming or boating.
* Resist peer pressure to engage in risky and self-destructive behavior, and exert positive peer pressure of your own to set a good example among your friends.
5. Lung killers include tuberculosis (TB), emphysema, and asthma. TB is an old disease making a come-back, particularly among the homeless, those who are addicted to drugs, and people with AIDS. Treatment of this infectious disease takes a long time and requires a lot of cooperation from the patient.
Smoking is public enemy #1 with emphysema. Smoking and being around smokers is especially dangerous for people with asthma, too. Medication and lifestyle changes can help people live with this chronic disease.
6. Diabetes is a metabolic disorder. Although it cannot be cured, people with diabetes can do a lot to keep the disease under control. When it goes out of control, it can cause death. Control requires lifestyle changes that include avoiding smoking and alcohol; diet and exercise to maintain a healthy weight and blood glucose level; and, often, taking special medications.
7. Pneumonia and influenza result from exposure to disease organisms. Most people who catch these illnesses get better; those who die from them tend to be very old or very young, or to have poor immune defenses because of another serious disease.
8. Suicide has become too common among American teenagers. In 1990, more than 4,800 15- to 24-year-olds took their own life. You can probably understand what lies behind the numbers better than the experts. Adolescence is a time of change, turmoil, confusion. When the confusion overwhelms more positive feelings, it may become too much for a young person to endure. Drugs, alcohol, and family problems contribute to a feeling of hopelessness. Happily, most teens weather this time with the help of friends and trusted adults.
9. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that leads to AIDS, a condition that has made its horrible presence well-known in little more than a decade. Some people call AIDS the modern plague; many people think it has nothing to do with them and their friends.
An indication of how serious a public health problem HIV infection is can be seen in a look at the Top 10 causes of death in the United States over a 12-year period. In 1985, HIV infection was not listed as a major cause of death; in 1987, it was listed at #15; by 1989, it had sneaked up to #11; in 1990, to #10; and estimates for 1991 put it at #9. And among teens and young adults under 25, the latest figures rank it #6.
It’s all the more frightening if you look at the age group immediately following–25 to 44–where HIV infection is the #3 cause of death. Because it may take up to 10 years or longer after transmission of HIV to develop AIDS, many in this age group may well have made the choices that mattered while in their teens. Those choices fall into two broad categories: engaging in unprotected and/or promiscuous sex and sharing needles for injecting drugs. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand the dangers.
10. Homicide isn’t something that happens only on TV or in the movies, although it happens there a lot. And some experts wonder whether the amount of violence teens see on the screen and read about in the newspapers is contributing to the horrifying numbers in real life. What do you think?
In 1990, homicide accounted for 7,354 deaths in the 15 to 24 age group. Again, alcohol and drugs, as well as access to weapons, are risk factors. Solutions lie in words: Learning how to talk about angry feelings and to resolve conflicts verbally rather than physically is the best chance for teens–and everyone else, for that matter–to kick this killer off the Top 10.
Here’s the Good News
Death rates from most of the Top 10 killers have declined between your parents’ generation and your own. Hats off to you for making the right choices! Here’s an example: In 1950, 6.8 of every 100,000 people between the ages of 15 and 24 died from heart disease; in 1980, the figure had shrunk to 2.9 per 100,000. By the end of that decade, it was 2.6, with every indication that the decline would continue.
In fact, among the 12 to 17 age group it looks as if a lot of smart choices are being made. In 1974, 25 percent of that age group smoked. By 1991, that figure was down to 11 percent. In 1974 a whopping 34 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds were reported to have used alcohol in the previous month; smart teens of today have reduced that figure to 20 percent.
Teens today are getting the most out of their healthy bodies by making choices that matter. In increasing numbers, they are giving themselves the best chance of growing to a healthy old age, with lots of pleasure and fulfillment in the years between.