Young Adults’ Health Status: Scary Data

The other day, I was “on the road” at a motel and happened to read an article in USA Today entitled “Young adults’ health static: or even declining in areas” (USA Today, Thursday, February 19, 2009).  The article was written by Sharon Jayson and summarized some data on young adults in  the annual report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).  Every year  NCHS publishes an extensive survey of health-related issues.  For the first time, the report included a section of “young adults,” a group defined as people in the U.S., ages 18-29.  The lead author of the study was Amy Bernstein.

What do the data show?

The results are, perhaps, not entirely surprising, but they are very, very scary.  The report includes 50 million people so the data aren’t flawed by small numbers.  About two-thirds are overweight (fit into the overweight or obese categories based on BMIs); about one-third have no health insurance.   About 29% of men and 21% of women smoke cigarettes (smoking in women has decreased significantly over the past 10 years).  Among men, about 25% binge drink.  One of the study co-principal investigators, John Schulenberg, from the University of Michigan summed up the data pretty well when he said the following: “They’re still smoking, still drinking, still taking illicit drugs, and not exercising.  Whatever we’re doing, we’re not getting through to this particular age group.”

What do these data tell us?

In my opinion, these frightening data should tell us two things.  First, that  we should expect future health care costs related to “life-style” issues to remain very high for many years to come.  There is no reason to expect that when these young adults become mid-aged adults they will be healthier.  In fact, we should expect them to begin to show some of the consequences of their poor health behaviors such as heart disease, diabetes, and such.

The second thing these data tell us is that our current health care system has been incredibly ineffective in promoting healthy behaviors.  In my opinion, as we wrestle with how to reform our health care system, the discussions must include potential strategies to improve health behaviors.   I believe the most effective approach will be to develop comprehensive health education programs in the schools;, starting in kindergarten or even earlier; waiting until people are already overweight, smoking, drinking, and whatever, is too late; it’s almost always easier to prevent a problem than to treat it.  It’s much cheaper too!

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