During our lifetimes, we are met with all kinds of obstacles to overcome, whether in business, society, or in moral dilemmas. None as true as in our health and wellness. During each major stage of life, there are many health challenges and risks that must be met and overcome. The importance of identifying challenges in each developmental stage of life is crucial to the promotion and adoption of healthy changes in behavior (Green, 1984). I will explore how lifestyle and behavioral choices, as well as social determinants of health, can impact these health risks and challenges as they relate to the various life-stages. Kolbe (as cited in Green, 1984) indicates a number of “health-related types of behaviors” (p.218), some of which I will address for each life-stage and transition between life-stages. As we transcend each stage of our lives, new and evolving concerns obstruct our path to wellness. We tend to approach our health from the present, the here and now, but it starts before our birth and, with genetics, possibly before conception.
Once we are conceived, we are locked into the care of our parents to be. Whether a mother and father, a single working parent, a single drug-addicted parent, caring grandparents, foster care, the State, or a host of other possibilities, each is suggestive of the environment to which we will be born and/or raised. This environment will surely shape our health from within the womb and health professionals are tasked with providing directed education to the parents-to-be to give the child the best chance of a healthy development.
The importance of maternal health to the fetus has become a focus in public health over the last century, but emerging research is showing how best to approach this topic. “Two principal threats to infant health are low birth weight and congenital disorders including birth defects” (Green, 1984). Though technological advances are proving helpful in high-risk pregnancies (Blincoe, 2007), prevention and education is still key. A recent literature review (Slama et al., 2008) has identified some links between environmental toxins and neonatal health, calling for more specialized research in this area. Exposure by pregnant women to toxins, such as that from pharmaceuticals, cigarette smoke, and contaminated fish, pose significant threats to the fetus (Gwiazda, Campbell, & Smith, 2005; Landrigan, Kimmel, Correa, & Eskenazi, 2004). Family violence towards the mother-to-be also serves a significant threat to children in utero. A study by Amaro, Fried, Cabral and Zuckerman (1990) reveals that women who have a poor support structure, a history of depression, and current alcohol and illicit drug abuse are more prone to be victims of violence, which threatens the pregnancy.
Infancy is the most crucial of the developmental stages for cognitive, social, and emotional development (Centers for Disease Control, 2009). The environment in which the infant development takes place is a key determinant to the level of neonatal and infant health. Lead, as well as other environmental toxins and notwithstanding comprehensive abatement programs, still threatens the development of infants and young children (Gwiazda et al., 2005; Landrigan et al., 2004). As infants develop into toddlers and young children, the threat focus shifts from indirect toxin exposure to direct accidental poisoning and physical trauma.
As children start to walk and gain enough strength and ingenuity to open doors and containers, there is an increased risk of accidental poisoning by household goods (Hockey, Reith, & Miles, 2000). Though accidental poisoning has been mitigated to a degree by the “Mr. Yuck” campaign (Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, 1971/2009) and the introduction of childproof containers, many poisonings still occur, some being purposeful by loved ones (Davis et al., 1998) but most are accidental. Poisoning included, trauma remains the leading cause of childhood death (Green, 1984, p. 225; Harkins, 2009).
The transition into puberty comes with a change in physiology, both in the body and in the brain. Adolescents must contend with a new found, and usually intense, libido. With this, the adolescent faces the threat of early pregnancy and a host of sexually transmitted diseases. Though public health education efforts seem to be effective on some levels, teenage pregnancy and STD’s remain a constant concern.
Green (1984) also finds that teenagers also find themselves expanding and exploring their environments with their increased autonomy. Increased risk-taking attitudes typically lead to a high likelihood of trauma, which, as is true for younger children, remains the leading cause of death for adolescents, though the associated poisoning is attributed more to recreational and experimental illicit drug use and abuse.
Transitioning into adulthood, the health focus begins to shift towards disease processes and away from trauma, except for, perhaps, motor vehicle and occupational incidents. Green (1984) supposes that this is from a “curtailed freedom [and] increased responsibility for lifestyle” along with “reduced parenting roles, changing bodily functions, [and] reduced activity” (Table 3). It is within these years that other responsibilities can seem to outweigh those of health, probably attributable to a high sense of health as active teenagers and a perceived need to be successful within their personal economy. This loss of health focus can certainly lead to disease processes, such as atherosclerosis, hypertension, and obesity, which can, in turn, lead to an early stroke or heart attack. It makes sense to consider that behavioral health changes within the early adult years can impact the later adult and senior adult years.
As we age towards our retirement, our picture of health tends to become more obvious. Many of us will suffer from hypertension, coronary artery disease, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol levels. Some of us will have already suffered a heart attack or stroke, and some others might soon. At this point in life, it is imperative to have frequent check ups with a physician who will probably attempt to control most of the underlying risk factor diseases mentioned above with pharmaceuticals. Though we can try to adopt healthier behaviors, by the time we reach our senior years, most of the physiologic damage is irreparable. There is some promise, however, as “the elderly are found in evaluative research studies to be as much if not more responsive to behavioral change supports than younger patients or subjects” (as cited in Green, 1984, p. 228).
One of these changes is osteoporosis, or a weakening of the calcium bone matrix. As we grow through childhood, our bones are formative and calcium is readily bonded within the bone structure providing the skeletal framework for the rest of our lives. The elderly suffer the most from any calcium deficiency, as the threat of simple fall can lead to a catastrophic injury requiring surgery for correction or a permanent fracture if the person does not have strong enough bones. This will most certainly result in the loss of the person’s ability to maintain his or her activities of daily living which can result in having to rely on residential nursing care. A lifetime of cigarette smoking, heart disease, or generally poor health can lead to the same degree of disability requiring the same type of care.
Skilled nursing facilities, though important for the continual care or rehabilitation of the elderly and infirm, have risks for the in-patient just as any other treatment might. Skilled nursing facilities are a vector of a number of nosocomial infections, usually medically resistant, which can and often does lead to a serious condition known as sepsis, a life-threatening infectious condition that overcomes the bodies ability to self-regulate. Sepsis is largely fatal. Confinement in a nursing facility is also associated with an increased incidence of depression and loss of constitution (Green, 1984).
As we have discussed some of the more prominent challenges that we face at each stage of our lives, we need to understand some of the determinants that affect our health. So long as we are aware of these, we can change our lifestyle and behaviors to minimize the impact of some of the negative determinants. In my opinion, the most important determinant of health is the availability of clean water, then perhaps, the availability of whole food and decent shelter. I feel that these are most important because they are the most difficult to correct as an individual. Following these, I feel that the availability of comprehensive health care is important.
This paper is based on research conducted primarily in developed Western society; therefore, it does not address the problem of extreme poverty and other determinants of health attributed to it. One example of this is provided by Kiapa-Iwa and Hart (2004) who show an increase risk of health with a prevalence of high-risk pregnancy and STD’s in the impoverished region of Uganda. Whether we are discussing Britain’s Liverpool, the Mid-west United States, or Uganda, we must admit that a focus on education and prevention, such as safe-sex programs, safe storage of medications and firearms, defensive driving, and others, seem to be the most effective means of mitigating some of the more controllable health determinants for parents and children, as well as adolescents. Older adults and seniors need to have a comprehensive program directed by their physician, including a healthy diet, exercise, and controlling medical problems such as hypertension and diabetes to increase their health status.
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