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News You Can Lose: War For Breakfast

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For nearly two weeks now, the war on Iraq has played on as background noise in countless living rooms across America.

But while the constant exposure to the television war -- tuned in as we dress for work, get children ready for school and sit down for meals -- is an attempt at staying informed, it may be taking a toll on our health.

Health experts warn, regular exposure to traumatic events can increase risk for stress and depression and it can even weaken our immune systems. Doctors think excessive war viewing before bedtime can cause stress-induced night time snacking and interfere with sleep.

Even young children who seem oblivious to events on the screen may suffer ill effects simply as a result of leaving the television on throughout the day.

Although research on the health impacts of television viewing during a crisis is limited, studies following the September 11 attacks do show a link.

Researchers at the Center of Urban Epidemiologic Studies at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, surveyed 5,000 California, Illinois and New York residents about their health and viewing habits following the September 11 attacks.

They found that 32% of New York respondents who had repeatedly viewed the most unsettling television images had real symptoms of depression, compared with 9 percent in the group that had limited exposure to the images.

Similarly 15 percent of heavy viewing respondents in Illinois and California had symptoms compared with 5 percent in the group that had limited exposure.

Analysts followed 1,000 families for 6 months and found adults and children routinely recalled the most vivid images of the attack. Five months later young children showed symptoms ranging from unexplained daydreaming, nightmares and fear of darkness and loud noise.

One study asked participants to perform a memorization test -- creating the type of stress we might face on a work or school deadline. They were also shown 12 minutes of video from the September 11 attacks.

Researchers found the memory task boosted the saliva concentration of a protein associated with the immune system. But when the participants watched the attack images, levels of the protein dropped, indicating a weakening of the immune system.

While the images of September 11 are different than war images, the research does indicate that passive stress, such as that experienced while watching television can take a greater health toll. Doctors suggest that families give the television a break. Limit viewing to short updates.

Turn to newspapers, magazines and radio for a change of pace. Arrange to have family discussions. Avoid debating the pro and cons of the current war. Add some form of prayer or meditation to your daily routine. And pay attention to your feelings. If you notice higher levels of prolonged anxiety, back off.

Dr. Levister welcomes reader mail concerning their body but regrets that he is not able to answer individual letters. Your letters will be incorporated into the column as space permits.

You may direct your letters to Dr. Levister in care of Black Voice News, P.O. Box 1581, Riverside, CA 92502.

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