The Secret Impact of Academic Pressure on Daughters’ Health: PCOS

Academic pressure may unknowingly contribute to a silent health crisis among young girls during PCOS awareness month in September. This concerning reality starts in classrooms but often leads to gynecologists’ offices, where ultrasound scans reveal ovarian cysts and result in a diagnosis of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). As a recently graduated doctor, I found myself in such an office, facing this condition rooted in a high-stress, self-care-deprived lifestyle imposed by my demanding environment. Alongside recommendations for lifestyle changes, such as a high-protein diet, daily exercise, and stress reduction, I was told that my health issue stemmed from my less-than-ideal lifestyle enforced by relentless academic pressure for 15 years of my life.

This narrative resonates with countless young women in India, raising the question of whether our competitive education system is shaping a generation prone to PCOS. It is important to explore the intricate link between education, lifestyle, and health in India, as it is a matter of great significance. Various studies and reports, including those by The Hindu, indicate that PCOS is increasingly common among modern Indian women. One in five women in India struggles with PCOS, and 60% of those seeking infertility treatments do so due to PCOS-related problems. Gynecologists nationwide agree that this condition is on the rise.

PCOS does not have a single known cause. It affects individuals with a genetic predisposition, often marked by a family history of diabetes or obesity, who are exposed to environments that do not encourage a healthy diet, regular exercise, and are stress-laden. Research confirms that adolescents raised in environments conducive to healthy choices have a lower risk of developing PCOS. Unfortunately, such environments are scarce, especially for students in the Indian context.

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Physical education classes, where they exist, are typically once a week for a mere 30-45 minutes, which falls far short of the World Health Organization’s recommendations for adolescent physical exercise. The lack of sufficient physical activity in schools has worsened over the years, as revealed by the 2022 India Report Card team. Srijana, a student from Guwahati, shares her experience, stating that throughout her schooling, physical education classes were often borrowed by math or science teachers to complete the syllabus. Now, in twelfth grade, she has no time for exercise as she goes from tuition to school and then home.

Mohammad Aslam Ali, a medical professional, adds insight, saying that the narrative in India is that non-academic activities are considered a waste of time. Parents enroll their children in tuition and coaching classes from a young age, leaving little time or motivation for physical activity. Many women only start exercising when health scares or infertility issues arise. However, experts in neuroscience emphasize that fostering physical activity must start in childhood because those neglecting exercise during youth find it hard to initiate later when health issues arise.

The highly competitive education system in India not only makes normal expectations for physical activity unattainable but also subjects adolescents to extreme stress. Studies establish a clear link between stress and PCOS, and in Indian adolescents, the most common cause of stress is academic pressure. Dr. Aslam points out that while academic stress can be productive if channeled effectively, education on coping skills and emotion regulation is often overlooked in India. Most Indian schools lack mental health professionals to assist students with stress. Additionally, Indian parents often lack the tools to teach healthy resilience and tend to impose unrealistic academic performance expectations on their children.

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Stress-induced hormonal changes alter the body composition and predispose young women to PCOS. This condition is now the most prevalent endocrine disorder among young Indian women, impacting their lives through diabetes, obesity, heart disease, mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, and fertility issues. It also leads to cosmetic concerns, including increased body hair, facial hair, and scalp hair loss.

While education and ambition empower women, it is crucial not to neglect their health. The growing prevalence of PCOS urges society to consider how our narratives surrounding education affect the future health and well-being of our children. It is vital to encourage exercise and ensure that children have time for it. Implementing a robust and universal physical education syllabus that focuses on accessibility is paramount. Additionally, parents need to detach themselves from the prestige or status narrative of academic success and understand that there are various routes to success that do not solely rely on academic excellence. Including mental health and stress management skills in the curriculum is not only a necessity but also a responsibility.

It is important to keep in mind that women facing health challenges may encounter several obstacles to achieving success in life. By addressing the impact of academic pressure on young girls’ health, we can create a healthier and more balanced education system that promotes their overall well-being.

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