Targeting Adolescents in Fight Against NCDs is Critical

Posted on: February 19th, 2013 by Kelli

Kyuri Lee is currently a senior majoring in Human Biology, Health, and Society and minoring in Global Health at Cornell University.

I started off my internship experience with Arogya World by attending a breakfast panel titled Milestones in Adolescent and Youth Health and Development, hosted by the International Center for Research on Women along with the United Nations Foundation.

Maybe it was the delicious pastries, the amazing speakers, or the gripping numbers and stats, but I found it fascinating. Sure, I’ve taken undergraduate courses relevant to human development and global health, but it had never really attracted my attention in the way that this panel did.

This panel shed light on the positive implications of actively including the youth when tackling the rising problem of NCDs.  A well-known statistic about non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is that they kill more than 36 million people each year and 80% of NCD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.  And of the 7 billion people in the world today, 45% of the population is under 25 years old.

From these numbers alone, it’s safe to conclude that in any country, the adolescent period is critical to set the tone for future health outcomes.  Nearly one in five of the world’s adolescents aged 13-15 years use tobacco, the leading cause for cancer.   70% of overweight adolescents have one or more risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and in the United States alone, approximately 12.5 million of those aged 2-19 years old are obese.  Clearly, there is an urgent need to invest in the world’s youth to alleviate the global burden of NCDs.  If children are now being affected with NCDs and adopting behaviors that contribute to future development of NCDs, the future looks bleak.

The Lancet published a series on adolescent health in 2012 and Dr. Susan Sawyer, one of the authors of the series and a speaker at the panel, introduced the conceptual framework for adolescent health.  The framework shows how different factors such as social context including home and school environment, risk and protective factors, and even social media exposure affect future health-related behaviors.  In an interview with ABC on this series, Dr. Sawyer comments on the impact of the changing global social environments on the health of young people:

We are seeing some remarkable global change because in terms of the drivers of health behaviours in young people, it is no longer simply restricted to one’s narrow village or even at a national level but the impact of social media, globalisation, the change from predominantly rural to highly urbanised communities has throughout the globe, including countries like India, particularly in the African countries, has really changed the nature of community in these countries and has in a sense reduced the extent of social scaffolding that has previously been of major support of protecting young people as they move towards a path into adult life and many of those structures have broken down.

So what does this mean?  Coming up with appropriate policies that address healthier social environments and monitoring social media for healthier marketing of products and lifestyle for adolescence will be critical.  For example, a past study has shown that schools that have strong relationships between students and teachers result in reduced social behaviors that have negative health consequences.  However, what does this mean for us ordinary people who are not directly involved with policy-making?

For the rest of us there are still many things we can do at the micro level that will have lasting implications.  If you are a mom, you play a critical role in your child’s adolescent period.  It is during the adolescent period, especially during puberty that we are biologically evolving.  Make sure you are presenting a healthy diet to your children.  In 2009, Dr. Reimer discovered that our diets during childhood directly influence the expression of genes related to our body’s metabolic pathways later on.   As for school environments, get involved in your child’s school system and make sure that your child’s school is prioritizing a healthy social environment.  Also with the rising number of children engaged in social media, increasing concerns include lack of physical exercise and more sleep disturbances which both have negative health consequences.  Make sure your child is getting enough physical exercise during the week.

It’s important that we do not neglect adolescents as we work to reduce the incidence of NCDs and improve health globally.  We are discovering that the adolescent period is a critical time period for future health outcomes.  It’s a hackneyed phrase, but children are our future, and if we do not take action now, our future health statistics will be increasingly alarming.