Take time for women’s health

This week is National Women's Health Week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' observance of the importance of women doing the things they need to do to stay healthy. The theme this year is "It's Your Time."

Today was National Women's Checkup Day, on which women are urged to make appointments with their health-care providers and to find out what screenings and immunizations they need.

The general message from Uncle Sam to the women of America is the usual good stuff: Eat a nutritious diet, get plenty of sleep and exercise, wear your seatbelt, don't smoke.

This is a great idea, setting one week aside for women, who often are too busy taking care of others to take care of themselves, to concentrate on doing what they need to do to maintain their own health.

What are you doing for yourself this week? I would love to hear from you.

Mixed report on breast-feeding

Three-fourths of American babies start life on the breast, but moms are giving up on breast-feeding sooner than officials would like to see.

Healthy People 2010, a national statement of health goals, sets the bar for breast-feeding at birth at 74 percent. Fully 75 percent of American moms are breast-feeding at birth, so the country is (barely) meeting that objective.

However, the goals would have half of mothers breast-feeding at six months of life and a quarter continuing on at a year. In practice, 43 percent are breast-feeding at six months and 22 percent at one year.

"We need to direct even more effort toward making sure mothers have the support they need in hospitals, workplaces and communities to continue breastfeeding beyond the first few days of life, so they can make it to those six- and 12-month marks," said William Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., director of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Ga.

The CDC issues an annual report card of how "key community settings" like hospitals and child-care centers are supporting breast-feeding, which research has demonstrated can improve an individual's lifetime health outlook.

While the overall news is good for moms' getting a start on breast-feeding at birth, the swing among the various states ranges from 90 percent in Utah to to 53 percent in Mississipi.

Have preterm births peaked?

Preterm births in the United States went up steadily from 1981 to 2006, but now they seem to be going back down, according to a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md.

This is the first two-year downturn in nearly three decades, the report states.

The peak year for preterm births was 2006, when they accounted for 12.8 percent of all births. The rate in 2008 was 12.3 percent.

A preterm birth is one that occurs before 37 weeks of gestation. Babies born before this point are more likely to have serious health problems compared with infants born later in pregnancy. Even babies just shy of 37 weeks are more likely to have "neurodevelopmental problems," or to die before they turn one year old, than are babies born at term, the report states.

Preterm rates appear to be falling among women of all age groups younger than 40, among all ethnic groups, in all types of deliveries and in most parts the country. Several states saw a flat rate of preterm births over the last two years, but only Hawaii experienced an increase. The decrease was similar for singleton and multiple births.

However, the report notes that "the U.S. preterm birth rate remains higher than in any year from 1981 to 2002, with large differences still evident by race and Hispanic origin. Further research is necessary to explain the factors behind the current downturn and to develop approaches to help ensure its continued decline."

If Mama ain’t healthy…

We're halfway through National Women's Health Week, a time for women to remember that a mother's health is the linchpin for the whole family's health.

On Monday, National Women's Check-Up Day, we were all supposed to make all our necessary medical and dental appointments. If you missed it, you might consider making one or two of those appointments today.Art deco woman

If you're not sure what sort of maintenance you need to do, check out the Interactive Screening Chart and Immunization Tool on the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services website. It breaks down recommended exams, screenings and immunizations by age groups and classifications of health (mental health, reproductive health, oral health, to name a few).

The website notes that it's a good idea to talk with your health-care professional about the recommendations.

The basics of women's health are these, according to the HHR website:

*Get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, 1 hour and 15 minutes of vigorous physical activity, or a combination of both each week.

*Eat a nutritious diet.

*Visit a health care professional to receive regular checkups and preventive screenings.

*Avoid risky behaviors, such as smoking and not wearing a seatbelt.

*Pay attention to mental health, including getting enough sleep and managing stress.

"The Favorite" by Leon-Francois Comerre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Informed reporters an endangered species

I have seen a couple of blog posts lately grousing that the "mainstream media" is choosing not to cover this or that event or development, as if to suggest that a conspiracy is afoot to keep people in the dark on a particular topic.

As a staff writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, I am a member of the mainstream media, and I wonder if people have a good sense of what's happening in our industry. Ad revenues have been dropping, mostly as a result of services available on the Internet, and hordes of writers and editors have been bought out or laid off in recent years.

Fewer bodies mean less time per project -- less time to learn about a new topic, and often no time to take on a tough topic.

Just for example, I have seen complaints that many important aspects of childbirth, the topic I address here in Birth Story, don't get the attention they deserve in the media. I couldn't agree more, but I also know that a good airing of the issues would require a depth on the bench that simply isn't there at most media outlets right now.

The Tuesday Science section of the New York Times is one of the rare dedicated sections left that cover science and health. Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Times, said she has noticed that that section addresses health topics more than science ones these days, in a story posted by Mallary Jean Tenore on the Poynter Institute's website.

Readers appear to want stories that relate directly to their own lives, said Angier, who has written a number of science books, including Woman: An Intimate Geography. Her latest is The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.

"One of the things I try to do when writing about science is make it seem like it's part of your life already by making things into characters and protagonists, even if they're just molecules," she said.

Charles Petit, chief tracker for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, agrees that strong articles on science topics are becoming scarce.

While such issues as stem cell research and global warming still appear on newspapers' front pages, they are less likely to be written by reporters who have a solid understanding of those topics. So the stories are superficial, and readers don't get what they need to understand them, Petit told Tenore.

Even scientists are worried about this trend. In a Pew Research Center study published last year, nearly half of scientists polled said oversimplification of scientific findings in the media is a major problem. A whopping 85% of scientists said that the public’s lack of scientific knowledge is a major problem for science.