Mother Knows Best

Mom deserves a lot more credit than we give her. Here are 10 things that she got right.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on May 02, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world, wrote William Ross Wallace in 1865. And still today, Mother deserves a lot more credit than we sometimes give her.

While we're honoring Mom with cards, flowers, and Sunday brunch, let's take a moment to reflect on all we owe her, especially where our health is concerned.

As much as we might hate to admit it, it turns out she was right all along about lots of those down-home notions that made us groan as we were growing up.

Here's a brief sampling, organized to spell out MOTHER'S DAY:


If you contend that feeding us fruits and veggies while holding out on the junk food was tantamount to child abuse, you haven't got a leg to stand on. The health benefits of fresh produce and whole grains include strengthening the immune system while protecting against heart disease and cancer. Junk food, on the other hand, is high in salt and sugar, promoting high blood pressure, obesity, and dental cavities.

"Parents should offer children a variety of healthy food choices -- no junk food!" William H. Dietz, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. "The child can choose whether or not he wants to eat."

But what if Junior gets hungry?

"That's the whole idea," says Dietz, director of the division of nutrition and physical activity at the CDC in Atlanta. "Children need to learn the consequences of not eating -- then they'll make healthy choices on their own."

What about Mom's advice to eat a morning bowl of cereal rather than grabbing a donut on the run? Right on the money, according to research by M. Rene Malinow, MD, a professor of medicine at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.

"Fortified cereals are a good source of vitamins," Malinow tells WebMD, and they also may decrease levels of homocysteine, which has been linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

"Breakfast cereal fortified with folic acid is an inexpensive and harmless way to decrease homocysteine," Malinow says. And research suggests lowering homocysteine may help decrease the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Mom insisting we wash up before dinner is also a great idea, especially after caring for farm animals and exotic pets. These loveable critters have been linked to dangerous outbreaks of E. coli, a bacterial infection causing bloody diarrhea, fever, vomiting, kidney failure, and even death.

What about a hot bowl of chicken soup for your cold? An old wives' tale, right? Not according to Stephen Rennard, MD, a professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

Although Rennard has not yet tested in people the healing powers of his wife's legendary soup recipe, the 'liquid gold penicillin' is pretty impressive in the lab, preventing movement of white blood cells that leak into body tissues and cause inflammation.

"This might explain why chicken soup makes us feel better when we have a cold, because it might prevent symptoms like sore throat, runny nose, and achy joints," Rennard tells WebMD.


"Button up your overcoat! And don't forget the galoshes/mittens/muffler!" Don't you just cringe thinking about it?

Turns out that cold weather does stress the immune system and can lower our resistance to infections, especially if we're not accustomed to it. So Maree Gleeson, an exercise physiologist at the University of Birmingham in England, suggests that athletes competing in cold climates protect themselves by limiting exposure and wearing warm clothing.


Remember when Mom told you to spend less time glued to the TV and more time outside playing? A study published in the April 2001 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed that exposure to TV, video games, and other media is linked to increased violent and aggressive behavior and more high-risk behavior, including alcohol and tobacco use and earlier onset of sexual activity.

"TV viewing could contribute to childhood obesity and other health problems," Jyu-Lin Chen, RN, MS, a doctoral student at the Young Children's Health Project of the University of California, San Francisco, tells WebMD. "Planning family activity with your child, such as playing sports or games, is the best way to help reduce TV-viewing time and decrease its negative impact on your children's health."

Dietz adds that TV viewing means more than a tendency for less physical activity: 25% of food consumption in children happens in front of the TV set. Listen to Mom if you don't want to be a couch potato.


"So when are you going to settle down and get married?" some moms ask their daughters whenever an eligible male walks by -- that is, one with a strong pulse and no wedding band. Besides pleasing Mom, marriage may actually be good for your physical and mental health and even add a few years to your life.

"Healthier people marry sooner and married people live longer," John E. Murray, PhD, a professor of economics at the University of Toledo in Ohio, tells WebMD. After studying life span in a large group of male college graduates, Murray concluded that married men did live longer than bachelors, even when their health in early adulthood was taken into account.

"A spouse tends to tone down the other spouse's self-destructive behavior, like drinking, smoking, and carousing at night," Murray says, "as well as caring for one another when sick and the knowledge of security that brings."

Eyes and Ears

Yes, carrots are good for your eyes -- and so are spinach and collard greens. A 2000 review in the International Ophthalmology Clinics reports that these vegetables, high in beta-carotene, vitamin A, and other helpful vitamins and minerals, may help prevent or even slow down night blindness, the genetic eye disease retinitis pigmentosa -- which gradually leads to blindness -- and other progressive eye diseases.

"Was Mom right when she said not to strain your eyes? Maybe a little," Karla Zadnick, OD, PhD, an associate professor of optometry at Ohio State University in Columbus, tells WebMD. Her research shows a modest link between close work and nearsightedness, "but certainly not enough to suggest that we should stop kids from reading," she says.

Inherited causes of nearsightedness are far more important, Zadnick says. Having one nearsighted parent increases the risk of this vision problem threefold, while children of two nearsighted parents have seven times the risk.

As of this writing, WebMD was unable to confirm Mom's warning that masturbation causes blindness. Sorry, Mom.

"Turn down that loud music!" Sound familiar? A recent study showed that young disco patrons in Singapore suffered measurable hearing loss, and the researchers recommended avoiding loud discos or at least visiting them less often.


Although we might not have appreciated it at the time, maybe we should thank Mother for telling us to say our bedtime prayers and for taking us to church.

"Religion may be at least as good for the body as it is for the soul," radiologist Andrew B. Newberg, MD, writes in his book Why God Won't Go Away.

Many studies have supported this idea, including one from Duke University that followed nearly 4,000 older adults. Even after accounting for health conditions and medical care, older adults attending religious services at least once a week lived longer than those attending less often.

"Religiously or spiritually active people have longer lives," agrees Michael E. McCullough, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

That makes sense because religion discourages high-risk behavior like involvement in crime, extramarital sex, and use of alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. And it encourages marriage, which has health benefits of its own. But over and above these effects, religion was linked to longer life in 42 clinical studies that McCullough analyzed.


Remember when you wanted to pull an all-nighter getting ready for the big exam, while Mom told you to get a good night's sleep?

"For at least some kinds of learning, good sleep after you are initially exposed to the material is absolutely critical," Robert Stickgold, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, tells WebMD.

College students who stay up all night after studying "completely wiped out the potential benefits of their training session," Stickgold says. "Subsequent nights of sleep could not make up for this loss."

Sleep deprivation also causes irritability, dangerous driving, and careless mistakes, all of which can be hazardous to your health.


Mom said, "Just say no," and for good reason. Each year, illegal drugs cause about 10,000 deaths in the U.S., and drunk driving kills another 16,000. Tobacco-related disease, including heart disease and cancers, kills 450,000 Americans each year. About half of smokers die young, cutting as many as 25 years off their life span. Need we say more?


"Save yourself for marriage," Mom used to say. And even in today's permissive society, it rings true. Sexually transmitted diseases can cause pelvic pain, infertility, urinary problems, and neurological complications. AIDS kills.

The condom failure rate is thought to be about 5%, but unplanned pregnancy due to incorrect use of condoms may happen in up to one-third of women. And due to the minute size of the HIV virus, which allows it to slip through invisible holes in the rubber, condoms may not reliably prevent AIDS.

"Although mothers think their children don't listen to them when it comes to sex, teens report accepting more information and attitudes from their parents than from any other source," Mike Smith, PhD, tells WebMD. "It's better to develop an open relationship so they'll feel free to come to you with questions, rather than having just one big talk."

Smith, director of AIDS Education Research at Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Ga., has other practical tips to keep the lines of communication open while decreasing risky behavior. Get to know your teenager's friends. Discourage steady dating and unsupervised time, but encourage group outings. Don't let girls date older men, as this is the highest-risk situation for teen pregnancy.

"Learn how to listen," Smith says. "Share your own personal values -- don't preach."

Yes ...

Mom, you were right when it comes to our health and so much more. Thank you for always having our best interests at heart, even though we gave you grief over it. We owe our lives to you, and we love you on Mother's Day and always.

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