Lori Allen: Annual physical exam leads to lessons on the leading causes of teen deaths

06/24/2014 12:31 PM

06/24/2014 12:32 PM

Summer means sun, vacations and outdoor fun. And at our house it also means the annual physical exam for my son, who starts high school this year.

Typically a visit with our doctor means more than just an assessment of his physical well-being. After the typical height, weight and blood pressure assessments, I appreciate that our doctor takes the time for some personal interaction.

Once he confirms that my son is familiar with the game show “Family Feud,” Doc explains to him that he will be playing against me today. My son, ever the competitive game player, is thrilled. I look over at the exam table at the athletic boy, now nearly my height, eager to kick my butt. The pressure is on.

Doc begins by describing that on the (imaginary) board are four hidden answers to the very serious question, “What is the leading cause of death in teenagers?” I’m impressed.

If ever there is a way to reach my son it is through game play and competition. Save the lecture doc, he wouldn’t listen anyway. But competing with his mom, now this gets his attention.

He starts out slow, a little hesitant to say something wrong, eventually mumbling, “hit by a car.”

Ha, I think, I have a chance. That’s got to be a small number.

“That’s the number one answer!” Doc says.

Stunned, I wonder how that’s possible.

“Auto accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers.”

Oh, I see, Doc was being generous and broadening the answer. If he’s as generous with me, I might have a chance!

“Smoking” is his next guess.

I sense a big honking X for my son and feel some pressure to provide the next great answer. No wait, Doc decides to just eliminate that answer and allow another guess. Whew!

I relax thinking I am off the hook when I hear, “Let’s take a time out and have each of you guess what percentage of the answers are represented by the four answers on the board?”

Shoot, I need to be paying attention.

My son wins this one as the doctor reveals that the four answers on the board represent 73 percent of the total causes of teenage death.

OK, back to the game. “I don’t know, someone does something crazy?” I hear my son say.

“Crazy, like what? What are you thinking?” answers Doc.

“Someone shoots someone or something?” He has scored. The number three answer on the board is homicide.

“Suicide?” He nails another one, and it is revealed as the No. 4 answer on the board.

This is where Doc takes a moment to talk about how “when your mom and I were young and someone had a party that we weren’t invited to, chances were that we never even knew about it. Today, it’s all over social media, and people see pictures and hear about parties they weren’t invited to or things that they were excluded from.”

He talks about how important it is to be OK with that and to understand that this will happen in high school and how not to take that personally. Of course he said it far more eloquently than I can share in this column, and it was clearly a meaningful personal conversation.

“The No. 2 answer on the board is kind of tricky,” he said, leaving us both a little relieved knowing he was about to just tell us. “Accidents or unintentional injury.”

Because it was kind of a catch-all answer, it would have been hard to guess, especially after the very specific “car accident” was listed as the first answer.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention lumps the top two answers together and reports that this represents 48 percent of the cause of teenage deaths.

But the doctor had drilled down into the statistics a bit further to make this point: Motor vehicle fatalities are the single largest cause of death in teens.

So, according to the CDC, the top four causes look like this: Motor vehicle fatalities, 35 percent; all other unintentional injury, 13 percentp; homicide, 13 percent; and suicide, 11 percent. Knowing those four answers made up nearly three-fourths of the causes for teenage death meant things like cancer and heart disease were a very small percentage.

And the significance of that was that the top four causes of death in teens were things that could be prevented.

Like so many previous visits, this annual checkup turned out to be more than an assessment of his physical well-being. It was an opportunity to focus on maintaining that physical well-being into the future.

Because at this age, it’s important for him to be aware that he has more control over it than he might think. And it reminded him how much fun it is to play “Family Feud.”

Freelance columnist Lori Allen writes in this space once a month.

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