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What researchers told us about family life in 2022

Hundreds of surveys and studies looked at health and lifestyle, victories and challenges. Here are some you might have missed

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

As one year winds down and another moves into place, it’s a good time to reflect on what recent surveys and studies have shown about what helps people flourish.

Amid the dozens of studies that Deseret News covered in 2022, these might provide food for thought as you ponder resolutions, parenting practices and how small changes can make a difference.

Here are insights you might have missed.

Early birds might fare better than night owls. Research suggests night owls could be more prone to heart disease or diabetes compared to their early-rising buddies. Additionally, early risers seem to burn more fat as energy and are typically more active, according to a 2022 study in Experimental Physiology.

The Rutgers University research team said early birds burn more fat both while exercising and resting — regardless of aerobic fitness level. While the two study groups were similar in body composition, the early risers were more sensitive to insulin blood levels. Night owls, meanwhile, used carbohydrates for energy instead of fat.

Research says night owls have more obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease compared to early birds — maybe from a mismatch between their natural circadian rhythms and life demands like getting up early to go to work.

Early birds are also less likely to use tobacco, alcohol and caffeine — and more likely to eat breakfast. The study didn’t include kids.

Read more here.

Birth order matters. Most Americans grow up with at least one brother or sister, forming relationships that typically are life’s longest.

The Survey Center on American Life’s nationally representative poll, “Emerging trends and enduring patterns in American family life,” found that birth order, perceived parental favoritism, age difference and other factors all impact not just siblings’ relationships, but others, too, for entire lives.

“Few aspects of childhood have a more unique and enduring impact” than brother-sister relationships, Daniel A. Cox, the center’s director and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told Deseret News. He said the impact of birth order could be seen many decades later. Just under 4 in 5 polled said they were at least somewhat close to siblings. Middle children, surrounded on both sides by others, reported having the closest relationships — almost half of middle children, compared to 40% of eldest children and 35% of the youngest. Just over half overall said they are very or completely satisfied with their existing sibling relationships, something that’s more likely among those who are or were close to their parents.

The list of factors that strained sibling relationships includes perceived parental favoritism, time, distance, parental divorce and money stress.

Read more here.

To age well, exercise. Physical activity boosts cognitive health and physical well-being. Exercise even helps those who already have mild cognitive impairment, which increases the risk of dementia. The goal is at least 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, according to Tomiko Yoneda, a postdoctoral researcher at Northwestern University who explained the impact on brain health at the recent annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America in Indianapolis.

Physical activity may slow and in some cases stop neurocognitive decline. It might even reverse some damage, she said, because cognition can improve when people exercise. 

Other studies have also shown physical activity improves brain health.

The National Institute on Aging said in 2020 that healthy behaviors like exercising, not smoking, eating a nutritious diet, limiting alcohol and getting mental stimulation all reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And late is better than never.

Read more here.

Spirituality improves medical care and health outcomes. That’s from Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program and Harvard’s Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality, published recently in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

For “Spirituality in Serious Illness and Health,” researchers reviewed the best studies of the past 20 years to see how nursing a patient’s spirituality improves care and health.

The association is especially clear between communal forms of spirituality and key outcomes like reductions in all-cause mortality, suicide, depression and substance abuse, as well as greater recovery from substance use disorders.

Said lead author Dr. Tracy A. Balboni, co-director of the initiative and a professor of radiation oncology, “Finding that community that helps to nurture and sustain a framework of meaning, purpose and value is critical to our health, our well-being and our flourishing as human beings.”

Read more here.

Relationships lengthen life more than genes. The friends made, the family relationships that are well-tended and other warm interactions matter more than genetics when the goal is longevity and aging well. That’s according to a 2022 study out of BYU published this year in the Annual Review of Public Health. Lead author and psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lundstad said the evidence is exceedingly robust that our partners, pals and the folks living nearby can all aid mental and physical health. “We have evidence that social connectedness is linked to immune functioning, to susceptibility to viruses and an ability to mount an effective immune response to vaccines, as well as health-related kinds of behaviors,” she told the Deseret News.

Read more here

Family structure impacts teen technology use. Kids who live with both biological parents use social media and digital tech about two hours less a day than peers in stepfamilies or single-parent households, says a report from the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University and the Institute for Family Studies.

Youths estimate they average 10 hours daily on digital media, excluding TV time. The difference based on family structure is especially noticeable when it comes to gaming and texting, researchers note. In the survey, 43% of teens in intact families said parents set clear media expectations, compared to 35% in single-parent families and 29% in stepfamilies. The report says stably married parents tend to have more resources and more consistency in their relationship with their children, so they might be more likely to succeed in “guiding and limiting tech use.”

Read more here

Our diets could hurt us badly. Ultra-processed foods have already been linked by studies to heart disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity and sleep apnea. A newer study in JAMA Neurology adds cognitive decline to the list of risks.

Brazilian researchers found that limiting ultra-processed food could reduce cognitive decline in middle-aged and older adults.  It’s very relevant in America: They said 58% of the calories consumed in the U.S. come from ultra-processed foods. 

Those foods are  “formulations of processed food substances (oils, fats, sugars, starch and protein isolates) that contain little or no whole foods and typically include flavorings, colorings, emulsifiers and other cosmetic additives.” The list includes both sweet and savory snacks, confections, breakfast cereals, ice cream, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meats and ready-to-eat frozen meals, among others.

Read more here.

Climate change may make neurological symptoms worse. That’s according to research in Neurology that included a review of hundreds of studies on climate change, neurological disorders, temperature and pollutants. The researchers found extreme weather events that sprang from climate change led to more strokes, migraines and seizures, more hospital visits for folks with dementia and worsening symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Airborne pollutants were linked to a higher chance of having a stroke, headaches, dementia and Parkinson’s disease, as well as more severe symptoms.

Weather events like floods and heat waves boosted tick- and mosquito-borne sickness like West Nile virus and created conditions for nervous system disorders like encephalitis.

Read more here.

Unpaid helpers form a vital safety net for older adults. More than half of adults 50 and older helped someone older than 65 in the past two years, per a University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. Some helped a little; others were actual caregivers. 

Helping others helped them, too, providing personal satisfaction.  

In the nationally representative poll, researchers said more than 30% of those over 50 had helped with home maintenance, while a like number helped with shopping or meal prep. Over 20% helped manage finances. On the health side, 1 in 3 went along to a doctor’s appointment or communicated with a healthcare provider, while 1 in 7 helped manage medications and a similar number helped navigate insurance. Finally, 16% helped someone dress or bathe or manage personal care. 

Read more here.

“Tuning out” parents is part of a teen’s job. Kids who don’t listen are responding to a biological signal that helps teens separate from their parents and become more independent as they mature, according to Stanford researchers whose work was published in the Journal of Neuroscience

Functional magnetic resonance imaging showed how different voices light up a child’s brain — and how the response changes around age 13. Teens become drawn to unfamiliar voices more than mom’s, which is deemed “an aspect of healthy maturation.” That biological signal helps teens form connections so they can thrive outside their families as they mature.

Read more here.

American parents worry about the cost of raising a family and how other folks discipline their kids. “Parents not teaching or disciplining their kids enough” is the perennial favorite in the Deseret News/BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy American Family Survey. But this year, inflation tied for first when adults were asked to pick three issues from a curated list of 12. Both were top concerns for 41% of adults in the nationally representative poll.

But there are other concerns, too. In their three choices for the most-challenging issues, adults picked work demands (30%), single-parent homes (26%), crime (21%), the decline of faith (20%), lack of quality family time in a digital age (20%), lack of programs to help struggling families (16%), drugs and alcohol (16%), lack of good jobs (14%), sexual permissiveness (13%) and the changing definition of marriage (13%).

Half of the respondents were also asked about COVID-19 and race issues. Each was a top-three pick for around 12% of those surveyed.

Read more here.