- The Washington Times - Monday, January 16, 2006

A large survey of the nation’s youth shows a sharp decline in healthy behavior during the relatively short period between early adolescence and early adulthood.

The analysis, funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, reveals that by the time they reach early adulthood, many Americans already have begun practices that health officials link to three leading causes of preventable death: smoking, obesity and alcohol.

“Our hypothesis is that young adults are more vulnerable to poor health practices than teenagers because they are leaving the more protective environments of home and school,” said Kathleen Mullan Harris, sociology professor at the Carolina Population Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the study’s lead investigator.

“Once kids go off on their own, they lose monitoring and oversight” by parents, teachers and others, so there is more opportunity for experimentation, Ms. Harris said.

The study, published in this month’s issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, was based on survey responses of a nationally representative sample of more than 14,000 young people who were tracked since early adolescence.

The survey respondents, recruited from middle schools and high schools across the nation for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, first were interviewed from 1994 to 1995, when they ranged in age from 12 to 19. They were interviewed again in 2001 and 2002, when they were 19 to 26 years old.

“When they were young teenagers, most of the participants had fairly healthy behaviors,” said Christine Bachrach, chief of Demographic and Behavioral Sciences Branch in the Center for Population Research of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which financed the research.

“What’s really alarming is how rapidly healthy practices declined by the time the participants reached young adulthood,” said Ms. Bachrach, project officer for the study.

Ms. Harris said she and her research colleagues found that the following measures all worsened as the youth entered adulthood: diet, activity level, obesity, health care access, tobacco use, alcohol use, illicit-drug use and sexually transmitted diseases level. That was the case for nearly all racial and ethnic groups surveyed, she said.

For example, while only 5 percent of white young women reported no weekly exercise during the adolescent years, that proportion climbed to 46 percent in early adulthood — “a huge increase,” Ms. Harris said.

Similarly, among white young men, the amount that was obese grew from 14 percent in the teen years to 19 percent in the adult years.

When asked about binge drinking, about one-third of white young men said they did so as adolescents, while two-thirds said they so imbibed as young adults. Among white young women, the amount climbed from 28 percent to 52 percent.

Whites were healthier during early adolescence than those of most other racial groups but experienced the greatest declines upon reaching adulthood. For example, young white adults, both men and women, had the highest rates of smoking of any group (31 and 28 percent, respectively).

At adulthood, blacks reported being the least likely to smoke cigarettes (13 percent for men, 8 percent for women), binge drink (33 percent for men, 15 percent for women); or use hard drugs (5 percent for men, 2 percent for women).

But among women, blacks (55 percent) and Asians (53 percent) were the least likely to exercise.

“The results suggest early adulthood is being overlooked for health-promotion efforts. A lot of it is going for adolescents and older people, but it is in early adulthood where a lot of these bad health habits are being picked up,” Ms. Harris said.

She said she is confident that some behaviors, such as binge drinking, will abate as young adults obtain permanent jobs, marry and settle down. But she said she was concerned that harmful behaviors such as not exercising, gaining weight and smoking may linger or increase.

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