Bookmark and Share

Monday, September 15, 2014

What's In A Memory?

I almost violated the "don't insert yourself into other people's business" rule of living safely the other night.

My husband and I were enjoying a quiet meal at neighborhood restaurant when a party of three – 60-year-old man, his 60ish wife and her elderly mother – came in and sat at the next table.

Because the mother couldn't hear very well, their conversation significantly raised the restaurant's decibel level. It was impossible not to eavesdrop. The conversation brought back unpleasant memories of conversations my sister and I had with my mother before we became enlightened.

The mother and daughter at the next table started arguing about some long ago event they remembered differently. Neither would give in. Both claimed to be "right." At one point the daughter got out her phone to call someone else to prove to the mother that she – the daughter – was correct and the mother didn't remember properly.

No one with dementia remembers correctly. And who cares? I wanted to tell the daughter at the next table to shut up and just be glad she has a mother. But I resisted.

When I mentioned the experience to a friend, she said that her aunt and grandmother were in that situation as long as she could remember, and it was so aggravating! My friend recounted that for long periods of time they were so angry at each other they ceased to speak at all. Then they started again, disagreeing about a long forgotten blouse's collar that one thought was a lace and the other was sure was embroidered.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, every 67 seconds somebody in the United States develops the disease. Everyone I know has some sort of personal experience with the Alzheimer’s disease or dementia through a spouse or parent or friend. And because we've had that direct experience, we all know how scary memory loss can be.

This American Life recently had a wonderful segment about one family’s solution to memory loss. Treat it like an improv act! Here is the link to Act Two: Rainy Days and Mondys:

As my daughter used to remind me, “Isn’t it exciting that everything is new and interesting to Grandma?”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why Should You Care What School Kids Eat?

How do we keep kids healthy and improve learning outcomes? It’s as simple as making sure they have healthy food to eat. And with many children getting more than half of their calories at school, it’s easy to know where to start.

According to the Center for Ecoliteracy, healthy, freshly prepared school meals are a win for students, a win for schools and a win for the local economy. How does everyone benefit?
·      Healthier Children: Well-nourished children are more likely to be in their seats and ready to learn. They have fewer behavioral problems and are less prone to a variety of health problems.
·      Enhanced Learning: The better children eat the higher their test scores, longer their attention spans, and the better their work capacity and participation.  
·      Stronger Local Economy: When school meals use locally grown food, more money remains in the community.
·      Greener Environment: Freshly prepared school meals can reduce the need for processed foods, minimize wasteful packaging, shorten the distance food is shipped and create incentives for healthier agricultural practices.

Want to learn more about the importance of healthy school meals? Visit

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Smart Strategies to Talking with Teens About Sex

I have recently read articles about a California school’s decision to not use a sex education textbook that was unanimously approved by the teachers 

As a parent of a high school freshman and a sixth grader, I understand the fear and the need to protect innocent children, especially with such a sensitive subject as sex. So I do wonder how soon should I introduce this subject, who should give them this information or who decides what’s too much information?

However, I encourage parents to shelf their emotional reactions and consider a wider perspective by asking themselves:
  1.   Where do teenagers get their information about sex
  2.   How does sex education affect my teenager? Does information equal permission to have sex?
  3. What is it about sex education that causes parents to react negatively? What would make it positive?

Although only 13 percent of U.S. teens have had sex by the age of 15, most (70 percent of teens) would have initiated sex by their 19th birthday, according to Guttmacher study. What parent wouldn’t want to think that their child or children would abstain from sex? But let’s get real. Sex is happening, will happen, and doesn’t it make sense to give our children the information they need to make healthier and better decisions when it does happen? The key is an open parent-child communication and provide them with a safe environment to ask uncomfortable questions, which they may ask over and over again. The same study actually states that teens consider parents an influential source for sexual health information. But even when parents provide the information, their knowledge may often be inaccurate or incomplete. This leaves teens to seek information elsewhere – their peers, the media or websites that most often have inaccurate information.

Teenagers are going through many physical and emotional changes. It’s a confusing time and can be overwhelming. As a parent, I can only share my experience and “wisdom,” but it’s impossible to be everything to my children and to know virtually all the facts that they will need to better prepare them to become a healthy, responsible adult. I have seen when parents can be overly vocal about what they think their children should or shouldn’t have. While the parents have good intention, it may not always be for the right reasons. There is a difference between advocating for better options and bullying that’s motivated by fear.

The decision to shelf the sex education book seemed reactionary and fear based. Why is that? Sex education helps young people to withstand the pressures to have sex too soon. It has been shown to delay or reduce sexual activity, reduce sexual partners and prevent unintended pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) by increased use of condoms or other contraceptives. And yes, abstinence is taught as an option in sex ed, but it also opens up the discussion for alternatives, consequences and potential health risks in addition to pregnancy.  If you have an open communication with your teen, the sex education they receive in school can only support your conversation and doesn’t become perceived as permission to have sex. If framed as a conversation on how to have a healthy relationship with your body and defining what a healthy relationship is, you’ve just empowered your teen to be responsible, not to mention, establishing a sense of trust. That’s a big deal.

Let me just share some statistics of what California’s sexual health landscape looks like that will affect our future young adults.

o   Teens aged 15-19 years and young adults aged 20-24 years experience the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea of all age groups
o   Some California counties with low birth rates, such as San Francisco, Contra Costa, Alameda and Solano, have high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea among female teens
o   Rates for non-Hispanic Black female teens are almost four times higher for chlamydia and 20 times higher than any of the other racial/ethnic groups

Sex education isn’t just about saying no to sex. It’s also about learning how the body works (who wants to explain that?), methods of birth control, STIs and where to get tested, where to get birth control, how to prevent HIV infection and how to use a condom. It’s about their health.

My oldest will be starting high school in a few days. That thought still hasn’t completely sunk in, but I have to admit, I’m on freak-out mode. Will I lose her to friends? Will she take too many risks? Will she fall in with the wrong crowd?

I would like to think I can protect her in a bubble, but I know better. I have to prepare her for adulthood and teach her values, allow for her to make her own decisions, and that includes making bad ones. Sex is one of those things that is forefront in my mind, and I would hope I have had enough talks with her, have provided a safe environment for her to ask me the uncomfortable questions and can continue to give her the support she needs to make healthy decisions and care for her body, mind and soul.

Sex education is not the enemy. Sex is why the children exist. The more parents talk with their teens and pre-teens, the less impact the controversial textbooks will have because you are their first and most-valued teacher. 


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Yet Another Reason NOT to Eat Fast Food

If you listened at all to the news the last few years you’ve probably heard of all the problems related to food products originating from China. Deadly infant formula, BBQ “pork” made from cardboard, dog food and treats that kill Fido, and a host of other things.
Can you tell how much of this came from China?
It's probably more than you think.

So – would you eat any food products that you knew were made in China and shipped to our shores for consumption?  Well, if you eat at just about any major fast food place you probably have. 

China’s OSI Group (pronounced OH-see) is a supplier for chains including McDonald's, KFC, Burger King and Starbucks, all of which get ingredients from a unit of OSI known in China and Taiwan as the Husi Food Co.  Workers at their Shanghai plant were caught repackaging old beef and chicken and slapping new expiration dates on them.

With over 50 plants worldwide, not even these chains  can tell you for sure where the food they are serving really came from.  While some of their U.S. plants’ products are manufactured entirely from U.S. produced food stuffs, some are made from ingredients imported from China. And still others, like McDonalds sausages patties, are made entirely in China and shipped here for us to “enjoy.”

A spokeswoman for McDonald’s, Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, said the Shanghai plant supplies products including sausage patties, ham patties, beef patties and chicken nuggets. Globally, she declined to specify how much meat and other items OSI provides McDonald's, citing competitive reasons.

So the next time you are at McDonald’s (or just about any other fast food place) it might be more appropriate for you to take along a pair of chop sticks. After all, you’re probably eating Chinese.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Coca-Cola Life: a Wolf in a Green Container

After testing the waters in Argentina, Chile and the U.K., Coca-Cola will soon be breaking out a new “natural” and “healthy” soda in the U.S. called Coca-Cola Life, a product sweetened with a combination of sugar and stevia. With a considerable reduction in calories over regular Coke (89 calories versus 139), it is being touted as a low-calorie, naturally sweetened beverage. And Coke Life is all bundled up in nice green trappings to hit home the idea that it’s clean, fresh and, by golly, healthier for you. But is it?

To begin with, Coke Life is served up in a “PlantBottle,” a recyclable container composed of 30% vegetable fiber. However, production of this container involves using excessive amounts of water, and being non-biodegradable, these “PlantBottles” only add to our landfill problems.

Surprisingly, stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar, so a little bit goes a long way. Just what we need in this country . . . for us to grow that sweet tooth even bigger!

Though stevia is deemed a safe product by the FDA, from what I have read, there are some side effects to consider, ranging from nausea/bloating, dizziness, muscle pain to a severe allergic reaction. Stevia can lower the blood pressure for people on blood pressure meds, which is dangerous if you already have low blood pressure. It can interfere with blood sugar control so is not recommended for those taking medications to treat diabetes. And women who are breast feeding need to be aware that stevia is not approved for infant consumption.

So is Coca-Cola trying to pull the wool over the eyes of health conscious consumers? From past experience, I would venture a “yes” to that.


Monday, June 9, 2014

A Tale of Two Battles

Teen pregnancy is coming up roses. Recently published federal data show the U.S. teen birth rate hit a new low in 2013. The teen birth rate in California also continues to decline sharply, decreasing nearly 60% between 1995 and 2012. Naturally, there has been some interesting speculation on what’s driving down the pregnancy rate, including increased Medicaid funding for family planning and teens using more effective forms of contraception.

These findings seem to validate public health programs that advocate for sexuality education in schools and safe sex messages. However, with all the focus on declining teen pregnancy rates, we can’t forget about another battle in the field of adolescent sexual health – sexually transmitted infections (STIs). One county in Northern California, for example, has one of the highest concentrations of chlamydia and gonorrhea among young people, and the number of cases of STIs is on the rise. “Effective contraception” isn’t translating into increased condom use. The fear of judgment for STIs can be greater than for teen pregnancy - everyone wants to prevent an STI, but not everyone necessarily wants to prevent pregnancy. Teens may also have family and community support in raising a child but feel highly stigmatized if they contract an STI.

So maybe we need different, more innovative approaches when it comes to addressing STIs. My residency at Brown:Miller Communications this summer will focus on one such approach - how we communicate with young people about this issue, including how to message about STIs from the standpoint of respect, social norms, healthy relationships and sexual dynamics and how to develop a communications strategy that shifts the focus from STI prevention to health promotion.

Pregnancy and disease are not the same issue, but this is still the tale of two battles. The outcome of one is linked to the other, with success in one area inextricably connected to success in the other. We have our work cut out for us – let’s get started.

~ Leena

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

American Heroes or Kings of Sleaze?

Most Americans have fond memories and warm emotions when they see the Coca-Cola logo. Some probably even cry just a little bit when they witness a dramatic commercial like “America the Beautiful” during the Super Bowl. For over a century, Coca-Cola has framed itself as a symbol of the United States – Americana in its purest form. This decades-long campaign is the perfect marketing ploy and absolutely ingenious. It’s also killing us.

A product that quite literally marketed itself as a medication fueled by cocaine has transformed into the spirit of our nation. Unfortunately, this spirit is an illusion. Behind the comforting red script, the familiar Santa and the heartwarming polar bear is a force that simply does not have the American people in mind.

The industry may say “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” but we must. We've all seen this story before; all you have to do is think back fifty years to when it was socially acceptable to smoke regularly.

Sugary drinks are uniquely responsible for the tripling in diabetes rates seen over the past three decades in the United States. Coca-Cola and friends are fueling an obesity epidemic that will lead to heart disease, metabolic disorders and thousands of fatalities a year. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight today, and one in ten have diabetes.

These findings are not just correlations or conjectures. Accepted medical science shows that the liquid sugar in sodas is processed into fat in the liver, leading to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance. This in turn causes diabetes. That’s why the California Medical Association and over one hundred public health organizations have joined together to call for a warning label on sugary drinks, just like the ones added to cigarette cartons fifty years ago. Local advocates in Berkeley and San Francisco have also taken steps to tax sugary drinks to fund obesity prevention.

According to Dr. Simon Capewell of the University of Liverpool and a growing body of research on the war on smoking, Big Tobacco used a six-part strategy called “SLEAZE” to protect their interests. Now, we see the American Beverage Association and their countless front groups, paid for by Coca-Cola and a handful of other manufacturers, borrowing from the same playbook.

Their tactics are clearly apparent if you take a moment to scroll through @CartChoice, their hilariously misleading Twitter page:

Scientific conspiracies are alleged, suggesting that the data is unclear, when in reality the entire scientific community agrees on findings.
Logical flaws are used to make their case, yet those catchy phrases are factually incorrect. (Hint: SB 1000 does not cost anyone anything – the link they reference is an editorial opposing a different bill. Apparently, they failed to read past the first sentence.)

Evidence is selected to match their argument, while ignoring all conflicting evidence. (Hint: Sugar is not sugar. Different forms are processed differently by the body and influence hunger, depending on the source).

Absolute perfection is demanded of public health advocates.

Zany arguments, distractions and gimmicks misdirect the public towards a straw man. (Hint: Warning text would cost manufacturers and consumers nothing and wouldn't force you to do anything. Yet industry paints a picture of a “big government” out to get you. The cigar industry still uses this tactic.)

"Experts" are bought in to undermine science.

And finally, I will introduce two additional tactics.

They make consuming their product look sexy and fun.

And they use popular spokespersons to push their political agenda.

Look familiar?