Spooky, scream-inducing characters whose health has clearly taken a turn for the worse – skeletons and ghosts, for example – are as much a part of Halloween fun as pumpkins and candy.
But once the creepy decorations are put away, some frightening health facts can haunt us year-round – and should prompt us to take action.
"There's been a lot of thought about how you motivate people to change," said Mercedes Carnethon, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. "Sometimes scare tactics do work, like the anti-tobacco ads that showed the person smoking through a hole in her neck."
Dr. Tyler Cooper, president and CEO of Cooper Aerobics, a comprehensive health and wellness center in Dallas, said no single strategy works for everyone.
"Everybody has a different motivator," said Cooper, a preventive medicine physician. "If that's fear, OK. But some people have this belief that if something hasn't happened to them yet, it's not going to happen. The best thing we can do is present the information about what they can expect if they continue down the path they're on."
If you're not scared yet, here are some terrifying health statistics:
Most Americans spend more time in the kitchen than on the move.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated in 2018 that just 23.2% of U.S. adults meet the federal recommendations for weekly exercise: at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (such as a brisk walk) or at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (such as running), and two sessions of muscle-strengthening activity. That figure was down slightly from the year before.
By comparison, a 2018 survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found people spend an average of more than four hours per week cooking and cleaning up the kitchen.
"People think that it requires some type of herculean effort to improve their health and that's not true," Cooper said. "If you're not doing anything, start something. Just go for a walk around the block."
Vaping among teenagers has soared.
In 2011, only 1.5% of high school students had used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. The figure in 2018 was 20.8%.
That increase, the CDC warned in a report earlier this year, "has erased recent progress in reducing overall tobacco product use among youths."
E-cigarettes, which typically contain addictive nicotine, may damage blood vessels, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of clots. Beyond that, the CDC is investigating a nationwide outbreak of lung injuries linked to vaping that has resulted in a growing number of deaths.
Because the vaping phenomenon is still new, Carnethon said, "We don't even know the effects on long-term cardiovascular health."
Fewer than half of people who have a cardiac arrest outside a hospital get bystander CPR.
Immediate CPR can double or triple a cardiac arrest victim's chances of survival, according to the American Heart Association.
That means when someone suffers a cardiac arrest, bystanders are crucial until trained lifesavers arrive. Whether the reason is lack of CPR training or a reluctance to get involved, experts say doing something is always better than doing nothing.
There are 9.4 million American adults with diabetes who don't know they have it.
Diabetes left untreated can lead to damage in nearly every organ in the body, with complications ranging from heart problems and strokes to vision loss, nerve damage and even amputation.
"If you don't know you have it, you can't treat it," Carnethon said.
More than 14 million U.S. households are food insecure.
The term refers to people who can't afford enough food for themselves or their families, or who may not have access to healthy foods to ensure a proper diet. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 14.3 million households were food insecure at some point during 2018, representing 11.1% of the nation's households.
Even if people are not personally affected, Carnethon said, the national problem should alarm all of us.
"Social determinants like food insecurity contribute to health outcomes," she said. "These are issues that as a society we can promote policy changes to improve the health of everyone."
At Halloween and throughout the year, Cooper said, the message is the same: "Take charge of your own health. If you do your best to make even some minor changes, you'll see the benefits."
And if the facts and figures don't scare you, Carnethon said, think about people.
"It seems data doesn't motivate people, but personal stories and personal connections do," she said. "We need to put a personal face on good health and make it as relatable as possible."
So have a happy, healthy Halloween, she said. "And go easy on the candy."
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