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Smoking, alcohol and poor diet: Over half of Irish 17-year-olds categorised as having 'unhealthy' lifestyles

The findings formed part of a study by the Economic and Social Research Institute.

Image: Shutterstock/Tero Vesalainen

THE GROWING UP in Ireland survey has found that young people from working-class backgrounds and women are more likely engage in behaviours that increase their risk of disease.

The survey also found that those whose mothers have lower levels of education are more likely to have poor diet and levels of physical activity, while parental behaviour is more likely to determine whether someone drinks or smokes.

The study is the national longitudinal study of children, funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs with a contribution from The Atlantic Philanthropies.

The latest survey examined individual, family and school factors associated with healthy behaviours among almost 5,000 17-year-olds.

Its findings suggest that health behaviours are interdependent, and that four key risk factors for disease – smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity and diet – tend to group together among young adults.

The authors suggest there is considerable potential to use school to help encourage healthy behaviours and to promote well-being in young people.

Anne Nolan, one of the authors, said the study showed that a multi-faceted approach is needed to promote positive health behaviour.

“The increasing emphasis on well-being as an area of learning at second-level offers further opportunities for  promoting positive health behaviours during adolescence,” she said.

“The research findings show that measures to promote both school engagement and a more positive school climate, while important for educational outcomes, are likely to have positive spill-overs for other aspects of young people’s lives, including health behaviours.”

Three groups

According to the findings, almost half (43%) of the 5,000 17-year-olds fell into the ‘healthy’ group.

These individuals did not smoke, drank rarely, engaged in exercise on six or more days in the previous fortnight and had the best quality diet.

In contrast, just over a fifth of 17-year-olds (21%) fell into the ‘unhealthy smokers and drinkers’ category.

This group had the highest level of alcohol consumption, were daily or occasional smokers, and had moderate to low levels of physical activity and poor to moderate dietary quality.

More than a third (36%) fell into the ‘unhealthy diet and physical activity’ group, and did not smoke and drank alcohol rarely (monthly or less).

However, the individuals in this group had the worst levels of physical activity (just 1-2 days in the previous fortnight) and had the poorest dietary quality.

The authors noted that both unhealthy groups tended to use avoidance to cope with stressful situations and were less likely to attempt to solve these problems constructively.

Gender and family differences

The study also found that young women more likely to fall into the two unhealthy groups, particularly the unhealthy diet/activity group.

Meanwhile, family circumstances and economic backgrounds were likewise discovered to prove a factor in health behaviours.

Young people from working-class backgrounds were more likely to fall into the ‘smoker/drinker’ group, while those from less educated households (Leaving Certificate or less) were more likely to have poor diets and physical activity levels.

Young people from lone parent families had higher rates of drinking and smoking, a pattern that was at least partly related to their more negative school experiences.

Parental health behaviour was seen to have a similar effect, with higher rates of drinking and smoking among young people whose parents were smokers during their adolescence.

Social interactions at a young age also played a part. Those who were drinkers or smokers at age 17 were more likely to display conduct problems when they were younger.

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This group tended to socialise with older peers in adolescence, but were found to have poorer quality relations with these friends.

And young people with poor diet and physical activity showed signs of being more socially isolated, having greater peer problems, considering themselves less popular, and having less interaction with their teachers when they were younger.

Multi-faceted approach required

The study’s findings showed that a school’s social mix and climate were more important influences on the health behaviour of adolescents.

The authors noted that a multi-faceted approach was required to address these behaviours, and said promoting a more positive school climate and interaction would likely have spill-overs for health behaviour.

Likewise, they claimed that an increased emphasis on dispositions and skills at junior cycle could provide young people with coping strategies that promote healthy behaviour.

Helen Deely, Interim Programme Lead for HSE Health and Wellbeing said that the research showed how a positive school environment could make a difference.

But she said it was that schools are not the only influences on adolescent health.

“The inter-generational transmission of smoking and drinking alcohol identified in this study reinforces the importance of supporting parents with managing their own health behaviours,” she explained.

“Preventing unhealthy behaviours taking hold in adolescence is more cost-effective to the State and life-enhancing for citizens, than dealing with chronic disease in adulthood.

“While policy and practice is moving in the right direction, redoubling efforts to ensure preventative interventions are in place in school and home settings is critically important.” 

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