Archive for the ‘ Genetics ’ Category

Another School Shooting

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2013

I can’t decide – have we become desensitized to school shootings?

Yes, the recent school shooting in Nevada certainly received its share of coverage. And it will continue to do so. But the story is staying the same:

  • There’s a kid in school with a gun
  • Kids got shot
  • A hero teacher dies
  • The shooter dies

Schools have certainly improved security across the country. School personnel have been trained to respond to a shooter. Law enforcement officials are trained to respond very quickly and decisively. These are all necessary steps forward.

But … we still hear about a kid in school with a gun. We are still reacting to a kid in school with a gun. It’s time we start trying to really figure out how kids are getting their hands on guns in the first place – and really do something about that.

Because the unfortunate reality is that we are going to hear again, much sooner than we would want to, about a kid in school with a gun, in a town where no one thought that would ever happen.

Pistol Gun and Bullets via Shutterstock.com

 

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Should Schools Calculate – And Share – Your Child’s Body Mass Index?

Thursday, September 5th, 2013

Schools in 19 states are calculating each student’s Body Mass Index – BMI – and sending the information to parents. The point, of course, is to inform parents if a child is clinically obese – or getting to that point. 

There are a number of opinions about this practice. Elisa Zied has illustrated – in her The Scoop on Food blog – the pros and cons of this approach as a method for combating childhood obesity. We know we need to do something to bring down rates of obesity in kids. But is this approach worth pursuing?

I suggest it isn’t.

The reason is that providing information without suggestions for change is typically not influential. I attended an early childhood summit at the Boston Children’s Museum last spring, and it was clear that public health experts believe that parents need strategies for handling a range of complex issues that face them and their kids rather than facts and figures. Simply telling them that their child is obese, without providing real support and ideas for changing that picture, will probably not do much at all. And some worry it will only encourage poor self-image. Look at it this way. If a child is doing poorly in school, the report card that gets sent him lets the parent know that. But without any information about why the child is doing badly (Is the material too hard? Do they need a different study routine? Is there a possible learning disorder? Are they goofing around in class too much?), and without conversation between the school and parents about the next steps, that information does not typically lead to a solution.

Schools do have the potential to educate and influence parents as well as their kids. Rather than sending home a BMI score like it’s another grade, it would make sense to consider educational programs for parents and kids that take on the causes of obesity. They could share strategic information such as the types and amounts of food kids should be eating – and illustrate the caloric realities of fast food. They could provide suggestions for parents who are struggling to buy healthy foods because of the costs – and give them some real options for changing their kids’ diets. Genetics is part of the cause for some – some kids are just more prone to putting weight on easily – and the reality of that should be discussed. More information about how much exercise kids need – and how they should get it – should be part of the mix.

I’m not saying that schools should do this. But I’m saying that if schools want to play a meaningful role in combating childhood obesity, they will need to do much more than just providing a BMI score.

Body Mass Index via Shutterstock.com

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Can Autism Be Diagnosed At Birth?

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Not yet. But someday it may be a possibility. 

Researchers are developing a technique that analyzes the placenta for troboblast inclusions (TIs) – which are folds and creases that can be observed at a microscopic level. Preliminary research is suggesting that a density of these may indicate risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Longitudinal studies will now track babies for a few years to determine the magnitude of that risk.

We often hear about exciting science that will not come to fruition for a long time. But what’s intriguing about this project is that the scientists argue that the biological screening will promote the earliest environmental intervention possible. This is a terrific perspective because we know early environmental intervention can have profound effects on the development of kids with ASD. So rather than waiting for biological cures that may never happen, it’s quite smart to think about using biological science to bolster our ability to deliver interventions that we know have positive and sometimes quite powerful benefits.

Scientist Using A Microscope Via Shutterstock.com

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What DNA Can And Can’t Tell Us

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

The recent piece by Lisa Milbrand in Parents Perspective provides a fascinating glimpse into the modern world of DNA testing. In this post-genomic era, DNA may be thought of as something of a biological crystal ball. But it’s worth noting that the crystal ball may be quite blurry depending on what we are looking for.

Take for example rare diseases that are, in essence, genetic diseases. In this case, DNA tells us almost everything we need to know. If you have the gene variant that is responsible for the disease, you know that you will get the disease (although you won’t know exactly when). Such is the case for Huntington’s Disease along with many other single-gene diseases. That’s why babies can be screened for Cystic Fibrosis.

Other diseases are a little more blurry. If you carry a certain genetic variant you may be at high risk for disease but without perfect prediction. An example is the BRCA genes and breast cancer. These can carry risks along the lines of 85% (note not 100%) that you will develop breast cancer. Other genetic markers can operate in this probabilistic way.

But it’s worth remembering that most diseases – and in fact most human traits – are not due to the actions of a single gene. Multiple genes come into play, many (if not most) of which have not been identified. Multiple environmental factors come into play as well. Then of course there are the nearly infinite combinations of how genes and environments interact. That’s the stuff that makes the DNA crystal ball fuzzy indeed. The reality is that family history – rather than DNA testing – can probably tell you more about your (and your child’s) genetic risk for disease – and that the environment will be as telling. If you are wondering if your child will be very shy, or very outgoing, or somewhere in between, certainly their DNA holds some clues – but these aren’t easily revealed or understood. And they are the only determinants.

So if you consider DNA testing for yourself and your offspring, bear in mind what it can tell you, and what you want to know. Many times the answers just won’t be there.

Fortune Teller via Shutterstock .com

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Has The Economic Recession Led To Harsher Parenting?

Monday, August 12th, 2013

A new report from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFS) suggests it has – at least for some moms.

This paper deserves consideration because it uses an informative base – a longitudinal study of nearly 5,000 families who have a child born between 1998 and 2000. By following these families from 2000 through the present, the researchers were able to examine how the economic recession led to overall changes in parenting – particularly harsh parenting. Here “harsh parenting” incorporates a range of behaviors like excessive yelling, hostility, and corporal punishment (which includes spanking and hitting).

The basic finding was that levels of harsh parenting by moms (dads were not included in this report) increased in relation to the decline in “macroeconomic conditions” – meaning the large scale economic factors that operated at a community level (and not just an individual level) were the trigger. The idea here is that pervasive economic stress causes parental stress, which in turn becomes family-wide stress. Prior elegant studies documented this during the Iowa Farm Crisis in the 1980s – such work included detailed observational studies that tested (and confirmed) such a family stress model that derives from economic decline. Essentially, when a parent is feeling the effects of uncontrollable stress, their patience with their kids goes down. Things that may not have typically bothered them now seem annoying or noxious. Harsh parenting is often associated with feeling frustration and lack of control. So here the point is that economic stress can end up having this kind of negative impact on moms, and ultimately their kids.

One of the interesting findings in the new paper from the FFS is that not every mom reacted with harsher parenting practices – rather it was moms who had a specific genetic predisposition to stress. What can we learn from this? Simply this – moms know themselves well. They don’t need a DNA test to know if they get stressed easily or tend to roll with things (even big things). So those moms who are highly reactive to stressors may especially want to consider that our economic climate might be influencing their parenting to a degree (even if there isn’t an immediate economic stressor per se). Talking to a primary care provider about stress management and perhaps screening for depression would be options to consider. Such intervention could offer a way to ward off the long chain of events by which economic recession impacts a child’s daily life. And, of course, let’s hope that insurance coverage permits such intervention – or else it becomes yet another trigger of economic stress rather than a way to ward off the effects of recession.

Foreclosure via Shutterstock.com

 

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