Healthcare insurance expansion

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Kingston Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, newly appointed chairman of the Assembly Insurance Committee. (photo by Dion Ogust)
Kingston Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, newly appointed chairman of the Assembly Insurance Committee. (photo by Dion Ogust)

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In politics as in nature, it’s good to get close enough to the fire to get warm but not close enough to get burned. In both realms, the ideal distance is often reached through trial and error.

After four years as chairman of the Assembly Energy Committee, Kingston Assemblyman Kevin Cahill got a new job last week. He was appointed chairman of the Assembly Insurance Committee. He said he expected as steep a learning curve in his new chair’s job as he had experienced when he assumed his former chairmanship. Cahill remains a member of the Health, Economic Development, Ethics, Higher Education and Ways and Means committees.

Under a state executive order signed in April 2012, New York will begin implementing a state-established health benefit exchange (HBE) expected to provide largely subsidized health insurance to more than a million New Yorkers. The state Health Department will have responsibility over the administration of the HBE. But other state agencies, including the Insurance Department, will also be heavily involved. Under the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare, private companies compete in the marketplace for health insurance.

Getting that sunny D

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Photo by Runar Thorvaldsen

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My doctor shocked me when he told me after a blood test this summer that my vitamin D levels were low. I didn’t even know that was something that doctors tested for. He prescribed a weekly dose of 50,000 IU for me, but I never filled it. It’s just a vitamin, I told myself, no big deal. I already take vitamins and try to eat a varied diet.

I looked up food sources for the vitamin and figured that I would be fine with my regular consumption of oily fish and exposure to sunshine. When I went back a couple of months later for a follow-up, the doctor was not happy with me. So I was a good little patient and have been taking it ever since.

It turns out that vitamin D helps keep bones strong — that’s what it’s best known for. More debatably, it helps with certain types of cancer (this has not been tested on humans), diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and multiple sclerosis. It’s also said to fight inflammation, aid the immune system and modulate cell growth. One friend who takes it at his doctor’s recommendation tells me it improves his mood in the darker months.

Lately this wonder vitamin has been shoved into the spotlight, with lots of media attention coming in the form of books with names like The Vitamin D Solution, The Vitamin D Revolution, The Vitamin D Cure, Vitamin D: Is This the Miracle Vitamin?, Vitamin D Diet Benefits and The 7-Day Slim Down: Drop Twice the Weight in Half the Time with the Vitamin D Diet.

Whether it’s a miracle substance or not, the so-called “sunshine vitamin” is not a vitamin at all, but a prohormone that our bodies make themselves with the help of sunlight exposure. In cahoots with calcium, it keeps kids from getting rickets and adults from osteomalacia, or bone softening.

Although supplements and oily fish are reliable sources, most of us get our D from time spent outdoors and what is added to milk and some other foods by manufacturers. In modern times we are spending less time in the sun that at any other time in human history. Between our plugged-in lives and media-fueled fear of sunlight, many of us get less of this warm and beneficial stuff than we should. And it’s of more concern during the winter, with fewer hours of daylight and cold temps that keep us indoors huddling for warmth.

Beneficial beverages

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The message in this painting by Paul Heath is legit: coffee can be enjoyed, by most of us, anyway, without health worries. (photo by Dan Barton)


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When it comes to health habits, what’s bad can turn good. If you’ve resolved this year to give up a beverage with a naughty reputation, you might want to rethink. If you’re having trouble keeping any New Year’s resolutions to stay away from coffee, tea or wine, you may want to consider giving yourself some slack. They might be good for you.

Coconut water and fresh vegetable juice aren’t the only healthy beverages around. Recent findings on the libations we love show that they could be giving us many unexpected health benefits.

About 100 million Americans drink coffee daily, with the average intake being about 3.1 cups a day. If you’re restraining yourself from the Joe because of health concerns, know that various studies have shown that coffee may be effective against heart failure and other cardiovascular problems, plus cirrhosis, kidney stones, gallstones, exercise-induced asthma, dental decay, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, pain and depression. It’s said to raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol.

Coffee contains thousands of chemicals that haven’t yet been analyzed that affect its flavor and act as antioxidants. Several controversial studies have pointed out that — unlike some other beverages — the more coffee the better, with more benefits with increased intake, up to about a dozen cups a day!

Recent findings have found that coffee’s polyphenols may reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, as well as some aggressive types of prostate cancer, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Although coffee has been a suspect in high blood pressure, and does raise it a little momentarily, regular coffee drinking may lower it in the long term. It has been lauded for helping with metabolism, weight loss and cognitive function as well.

Coffee is our richest and most common source of antioxidants. The polyphenols in the cup help decrease inflammatory processes that can lead to diseases like cancer, but that content can vary according to how long the beans are roasted and how. If the beans are soaked and drained before roasting, then returned to the liquid afterwards, polyphenol content is retained. In some cases it’s the caffeine that provides the benefit, and other compounds in coffee may increase enzymes in the body that detoxify, protecting us from DNA damage. Coffee can also increase and revs up bifidobacteria, a beneficial bacteria in our intestines that boosts immunity.

Winter sports safety

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After last year’s mild winter, this year so far has looked like the winters I remember as a kid. There has been plenty of snow recently — at least until the last few days — and cold to sustain it. It’s been great for those fun winter activities that used to make it such a wonderful season for my friends and me.

But with the weather comes risks beyond slippery roads on the way to the activity. Breathing in the crisp cold air as you glide over fluffy snow is exhilarating and exciting, but winter sports can be dangerous. High-profile skiing deaths like those of Natasha Richardson and Sonny Bono make us all too aware of the possibilities. My son got a concussion a few years ago when he sledded into the barn. Jennifer, a high-school classmate of mine, had torn up her face as a young child when she sledded into barbed wire. The scars were permanent.

Thousands of children are injured ice skating, playing ice hockey, sledding, snowboarding and skiing each year, while winter-sport-related injuries send hundreds of thousands of people of all ages to the emergency room every year. Falls, collisions and fatigue are contributing factors to injuries to bones, muscles, joints and the brain. Sprains, strains, dislocations, fractures, concussions, exposure and frostbite are some of the risks you face in the frosty winter air.

Don’t try anything beyond your ability. Stay on the bunny slope if that’s where you’re comfortable. Don’t snowboard over that giant jump if you haven’t jumped before. Start smaller.

Make sure you’ve gotten in shape before you run that half-marathon. In cold air the blood vessels contract to conserve the body’s heat and cut down on blood supply to arms and legs. Unstretched muscles, tendons and ligaments are more susceptible to injury. So warm up first.

Watch the weather before you venture out. Ward off hypothermia by wearing layers of light, dry clothing that wick away moisture. Wear polypropylene or wool, not cotton, which absorbs it and gets damp. Layering for a cold day could include thermal underwear, a shirt and pants in wicking material, and then a fleece jacket covered with a windproof, waterproof layer. Wear a warm hat and gloves. Keep scarves and drawstrings tucked in so they don’t catch on equipment.

Fat chance, or run for your life

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My kids are at risk. Maybe yours are, too.

Obesity can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, high cholesterol, diabetes, sleep apnea, bone and joint problems including osteoarthritis and all kinds of cancers. It’s also associated with many social and psychological ills — low self-esteem and depression among them.

It’s horrible our kids could be prey to all this, but a third of them are. Over the past three decades obesity in American kids and teens has tripled, slightly more per the Centers for Disease Control, slightly less according to the American Medical Association. Obesity has gone up from 7 percent to 20 percent in the past 30 years in the age 6-to-11-year-old population, and 5 percent to 18 percent for teens, says the CDC.

For as young as ages 2 to 5, there is a 17 percent obesity rate in New York State (between 85 and 95 percentile Body Mass Index for age), and 14.5 percent that are obese (over 95 percentile BMI).

In most cases being fat as a child means you will be fat as an adult, with the accompanying risks of all those aforementioned awful diseases.

To try to fix things it helps to find the cause of what went wrong in the first place. Why there are so many big kids out there these days is not just a simple matter of too many calories and not enough exercise; there are many, many aspects of our modern society that contribute to this epidemic. A key player is advertising that glamorizes processed, high-sugar, high-fat foods. Cutbacks in school sports and other after-school programs haven’t helped. Technology, with all of us plugged in all the time to one device or another, is a huge factor, too. And yes, sometimes it is, at least in part, “glandular” or genetic. But I know a few really large children with slim, fit parents.

The bottom line is that kids are just not getting the hour a day of physical activity, whether walking or running somewhere, sports, games, anything. While adults need a half-hour a day of moving to be healthy, kids who are growing and developing muscles, bones, brain cells and blood vessels need a full 60 minutes of active play or movement of some kind to grow up healthy.

For most of us, but especially for the younger ones, activities need to be fun and enjoyable besides just “good for you.” That something is healthy is not enough of a motivator for kids to eat that broccoli or ride that bike. There has to be pleasure in it or it will be a chore, gotten out of wherever possible. That bike ride has to appeal more than that fast-action Wii game, at least some of the time.

Eight-to-18-year-olds are spending seven and a half hours a day plugged in: music players, video games, TV shows and movies, on the computer or chatting via phone, text or social media.

But there are some things to try. Preschoolers love TV. The “electronic babysitter” can entertain them while a caregiver makes dinner or does some needed chore. Heaven knows it helped me meet work deadlines when my kids were little, a few more times than I’d care to count. But the more TV a tot watches, the less likely he or she is to exercise down the road, so it helps if you limit TV. You can get him or her to help cook or clean, supervised of course, or keep some activities like puzzles and toys out of normal circulation and just bring them out as distraction from the fact that you’ve turned off the TV but are still busy. If you’re in the habit of having the TV on 24/7 as background noise, try to wean yourself off it with the radio, either terrestrial or web-based.

If you aren’t normally active yourself, it’s tricky to motivate a kid to get up off the couch and do something. You can set an example by getting out more, walking, playing sports, and being on the move doing fun things that interest you. If you can get your kid to do things with you, you can try family bike rides or hikes or skating (invite a friend or two for more fun), ball games or Frisbee in the park or back yard, even goofy dance contests during TV commercials. Sign them up for sports or hip-hop or horseback riding lessons if you can. Gear the activity to the personality of the kid. One of mine loves team sports; the other hates them. When friends come over, encourage outdoor play, the more the merrier. Limit screen time, reducing it gradually to be less painful.

A child that is very big is especially hard to motivate, because they may get teased if seen exercising in public, and the weight can make it harder to move freely. Because kids pick on other kids, being overweight is an obvious easy target. You can try giving them a simple, not too challenging exercise, like biking, walking or swimming, and make workout sessions short rather than exhausting in the beginning, so they stay more fun than unpleasant. If you have a dog, taking them for a walk is a great way to move without looking like you’re “exercising.”

Find video games that encourage activity and movement of muscles other than fingers and thumbs. Look into geo-caching, a scavenger hunt that gets you out there.

Exercise also blows off steam and decreases mental stress. Growing up isn’t easy at all, and kids need that exercise for healthy minds as well as healthy bodies. An overweight kid is more stressed because they’re big, from the teasing by other kids, from the difficulty of moving, from the low-self esteem of being less attractive. It can be a vicious cycle of negative thoughts.

I should have been a little fattie, based on the quantity of what I ate as a kid. I’d eat five helpings of my mom’s killer mac and cheese, devoured heaping platters at holidays and buffets, and gulped down tall glasses of full-fat milk. Desserts and bread weren’t on the table much, and although there was lots of meat, there were also lots of vegetables from my dad’s organic garden. There were lots of cookies, though, commercial and homemade, and if I’d been less active I would have been chubby then instead of waiting until I got older!

Now that kids are less active they have to eat less food and try to stay away from the high sugar, high fat, processed stuff. These days we eat 31 percent more calories than we did back them then, 56 percent more fat and 14 percent more sugar. Beverages are much bigger. Fast food and processed commercial food are much fattier and higher in chemicals and sodium.

Kids need more calcium for growing bones and teeth, in the form of dairy products — yogurt, cheese, milk — and leafy greens. They need protein in the form of legumes and lean meats, also eggs and cheese. They need vegetables and fruits full of fiber, vitamins and minerals, nuts, berries, bell peppers, tomatoes, spinach, carrots and squash. Dried fruit provides iron.

It’s never easy. But I figure every time you take them roller-skating instead of watching a movie at home or get them to eat a salad instead of frozen fries, it’s better than never at all.

And it’s not all up to us parents. Everyone is responsible for the health of our future adult citizens. Schools need to support healthy eating and activities, setting good examples in the classroom, cafeteria and playground. Schools need to educate kids about how to eat right and move more, and many do. Sometimes it’s their budgets that legislate what programs they are able to offer, and for that it’s also up to our school boards and politicians and government on every level to prioritize healthy kids.

In New York there are some initiatives to help, like the Obesity Prevention Program (OPP), in collaboration with the Diabetes Prevention and Control Program-funded “Creating Healthy Places” And New York’s Department of Health, Division of Nutrition’s “Eat Well Play Hard.” The latter trains staff, kids and parents in 210 child care centers, serving at least 50 percent of children from Food Stamp eligible households. Healthy Schools NY also has programs for low-income children.

Further afield, there is the social networking website PreventObesity.net, and in 2010 first lady Michelle Obama created “Let’s Move!: America’s Move to Raise a Healthier Generation of Kids.” See the website at www.letsmove.gov.