March 30, 2005 - Rampant obesity is holding back otherwise improving social and health conditions for American youths, according to a 30-year annual study released Wednesday.
The report shows vast declines in adolescent pregnancy, teen violence, and many risk behaviors including smoking, drinking, and unsafe sexual activity. But researchers warn that health and economic damage caused by obesity rates that have tripled since 1975 are negating many of the gains.
Many Areas Improved
The trends were measured on a scale called the Child Wellbeing Index, which tracks yearly changes in 28 social, economic, and health indicators among youths. The 2003 index suggests that overall conditions for American children have improved 4.6% since 1975.
Most measures have improved vastly since lows in the early 1990s. But relentlessly rising weight problems --16% of youth are now considered overweight and at risk for obesity -- have helped lead to a steady decline in health indicators that should have otherwise improved in light of large gains in teen pregnancy and violence rates, researches say.
Safety and behavioral concerns, community connectedness, and family economic well-being have seen marked improvements over the last three decades, says the report.
Educational attainment has remained steady since 1975.
Three areas remain below 1975 levels: Emotional and spiritual well-being, social relationships, and health scores, which include rates of childhood weight problems and teen pregnancy rates.
Overall teen pregnancy rates dropped from a peak of 20 per 1,000 girls aged 10-17 in 1991 to a projected level of 11 per 1,000 in 2004, according to the study. Observers attributed the decline to a wide range of possible factors, including rising high school graduation rates, new and more widely available contraception, and increased awareness of sexually transmitted diseases among teens.
At the same time the number of youths victimized by violent crime or convicted as violent-crime offenders more than halved since 1991, possibly due to improved policing and overall improvements in economic conditions since the early part of the last decade, according to the report, released by the Foundation for Child Development.
But despite the gains, some health indicators continued a steady decline observed since the mid 1980s. Overall health scores for youths in 2003 were 17% below what they were in 1975 and are projected to have fallen several points lower in 2004, the report estimates.
Obesity a Sign of the Times?
Kenneth Land, PhD, a Duke University researcher who heads the study, suggests that the obesity trends could represent a paradox in how America's youth are now raised by their parents.
High pregnancy, crime, and drug rates in the past may have pushed many parents to more actively monitor children's time outside of school. Teens that once spent hours free of parental control now spend more of those hours indoors.
"We all know that they're [now] likely to be playing video games inside the home, which protects them against violent crime victimization" but not against gaining weight, Land says.
Rudy Takanishi, president of the Child Development Fund, says in a statement that the study indicates that American children are "barely treading water" in education and health.
Land suggested that the obesity trends were helping to paint a "bleak" picture of conditions for American youth, despite improvements in pregnancy, drug use, and violence.
"It took a generation for overweight and obesity to reach these extreme levels, and it's going to take at least a generation to turn those levels back," he says.