DALLAS -- Are kids growing up too fast?
Dr. Michelle Fowers says too many are.
"I think all the time about kids with grown-up illnesses," says Fowers, a pediatrician at Baylor Medical Center in Irving, Texas.
Societal pressures, poor nutrition and inadequate or too narrowly focused exercise are causing serious health problems for kids, experts say. These problems include obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, repetitive stress injuries, anxiety, depression, Type 2 diabetes and eating disorders -- many of them striking at younger ages than they did a generation ago.
"There are so many things that make kids grow up faster than they should," Fowers says. She cites exposure to inappropriate material on television and online, marketers who encourage them to dress or act older than they are, pressures to compete in organized activities before they're emotionally or physically ready.
That's why she advises parents to slow childhood down by limiting screen time and eating and playing together as a family. It's advice she follows herself as a mother of a 4-year-old girl and 7-year-old boy.
"You have to allow time for them to be kids," she says. "You try to make your home a stable and emotionally safe place where your child feels loved and can get away from the pressures of the world. You need to offer healthy foods and schedule family time to go outside and play or to run around the house and goof off. I think there's a lot of creativity that comes with unstructured play."
Obesity is at the root of many of the health problems once thought of as rare in children. A 2005 report in The New England Journal of Medicine projected that childhood obesity, which has tripled in the past 30 years, may cut two to five years from the life expectancy of the current generation.
Obesity is a driver for bone and joint problems and sleep apnea in children. It has been speculated to be a factor in the rise in girls reaching puberty earlier than any generation in modern history, with about 15 percent of girls in the United States starting by age 7, a figure noted in a 2010 study in Pediatrics. Obesity also puts children at a heightened risk for adult heart disease, stroke and several types of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While doctors prescribe nutrition and exercise counseling to treat obesity, Dr. Christy Boling Turer says it's also helpful to explore emotional problems that could be causing a child to overeat.
"In my overweight and obesity clinic, I see a lot of children with major stressors that they're not handling well," says Turer, an instructor in pediatrics and instructor in internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and Children's Medical Center.
"Toxic stress, during critical periods of development, may impact brain development. Children may become more impulsive or may be more likely to develop emotional problems such as depression."
Turer says that the children who do best have parents who support them by taking the time to provide them with structure, consistency and adequate sleep. It reduces the children's stress and usually the parents' as well.
Dr. Sarah Blumenschein, a pediatric cardiologist at Children's Medical Center, says she, too, sees a correlation between childhood obesity and families who aren't spending enough time together. Her prescription? Slow down and enjoy moments together as a family.
"I had one family that was concerned about their children's high cholesterol. They changed their eating and the kids started walking with Dad every night. He loves it and they love it. I don't know any kid who doesn't like attention. They want to be with you. They want to sit down and have dinner together as a family and go out to walk afterwards."
Obesity-related illnesses are not the only problem affecting younger and younger children.
"Eating disorders have occurred throughout history, but in 1960, if you'd seen one in your practice that would be notable," says Dr. Jim Harris, a clinical psychologist and manager of the eating disorders program at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
"But by the mid-'60s, when the first teen supermodel, Twiggy, became famous for being stick-thin, eating disorders went on the rise."
Harris says that images in movies, magazines and online pressure children to be more like adults. As marketers target younger girls, the problem seems to be affecting preteens as well. While his clinic only serves ages 18 and older, many of his patients tell him their eating disorders started as early as 10 or 13, he says.
"Eating disorders are a fear-based illness," he says. "The level of competition these days is incredible. These girls are worried, 'Am I going to make the team? Am I going to make the right school? Am I going to fit in?' These are all things they can't control. But being thin is something they can control. They starve themselves or purge and they feel relief. But the next day, the fear is still there and they keep going."