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Chronic Health Problems Soar in Kids

Asthma, Obesity, and ADHD Top the List
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Kids Chronic Conditions

June 26, 2007 -- The number of U.S. children with chronic health conditions has risen dramatically in the past four decades, according to a new report.

The new research shows that kids will become so disabled their quality of life will suffer, and their needs will tax our health care and welfare programs in the future.

"We have 80 million children in America today, and about 8%, or 6.5 million children and adolescents, have chronic conditions that interfere with regular daily activities," says James M. Perrin, MD, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. He is the lead author of the report, a commentary that appears in the June 27 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The issue is devoted to the topic of pediatric chronic disease.

If children with chronic conditions not severe enough to be disabling are counted, chronic conditions affect about 18% of American teens and children in all, Perrin says.

The new numbers, Perrin says, represent a "huge increase" from previous generations. In 1960, for instance, fewer than 2% of U.S. children and teens had a chronic health condition.

Top 3 Problems

Using multiple data sources, Perrin and his co-authors found that:

  • Obesity affects at least 18% of children and teens, increasing from about 5% affected in 1971-1974.
  • Asthma now affects nearly 9% of children and teens, a doubling since the 1980s.
  • About 6% of school-aged children have a reported diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In 1960, there was no entry for the condition in the established manual used to diagnose mental problems.

Numbers Are ‘Worrisome’

"People have been very aware of the obesity epidemic [among children] in the past decade and aware of the asthma increase, but no one has put it together the way we have," Perrin tells WebMD. "I think we are the first to look at the whole picture together."

The new commentary, he says, is meant to provide a comprehensive view of the status of the problem. "This is in many ways meant to be a wake-up call," he says.

The researchers defined a chronic health condition as one that lasts 12 months or longer or at the time of diagnosis is expected to last that long. The 1960 research finding that fewer than 2% of children and teens were noted by their parents to have a limit in activity due to a health condition that lasted more than three months.

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