April 17, 2007 -- American children's health continued to slide last year, part of a trend observers blame on worsening obesity rates.
The analysis comes from a report on children's overall social and economic well-being. While overall trends appear stable or improved since 1995, health indicators are moving in the opposite direction, it concludes.
The report details improvements in many measures of health, including teen pregnancy, violent crime, and alcohol and drug use. But researchers said those plusses, in addition to improved rates of child mortality, were more than negated by rising obesity.
The study, released yearly by the Foundation for Child Development, assigns index scores based on a broad range of health, economic, and social indicators. These include family economic well-being, health, safety/behavioral concerns, educational attainment, community connectedness, social relationships, and emotional/spiritual well-being.
The report started with a base score of 100 in 1975. While the overall 2006 score was mostly unchanged, the health score slid to about 60.
Role of Diet and Physical Inactivity
Kenneth C. Land, PhD, who authored the study, says chronic inactivity and poor diet were to blame for dragging down health scores despite improvements in some areas such as infant and child mortality since 1975. In fact, had obesity not been factored in, the overall score would have been about 9% higher, he says.
"We've got to get activity back into our children's lives," says Land, a professor of sociology at Duke University.
Seventeen percent of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 19 are estimated to be overweight. That's about two to three times the rates seen in the 1970s, according to CDC figures.
The trend worries public health experts but has mostly stymied policy makers. Pressure is mounting on snack and beverage manufacturers to curtail their marketing aimed at young children. But at the same time, few states have responded to calls to mandate physical education or otherwise make physical activity part of the school day.
Urban planners have lamented the advent of vast suburbs and subdivisions, often built without sidewalks or convenient areas for recreation and play.
"The way politicians' feet have been kept to the fire has not been going as well as we need it to be," says Mary Bissell, a fellow at the New American Foundation, a Washington think tank.
Land says that "24/7" lifestyles have made family dinners rare and that the nutritional quality of meals has declined.
He also blames the advent of video games.
Kids appear to be participating in fewer risky behaviors, including drinking, smoking, drug use, and unprotected sex, he says. "Instead they're drinking high-fructose corn syrup in the form of soda pop and they're munching on chips and they're getting obese."