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Rise in wealth has made some teens fatter and others more active

A study of 34 countries, including Ireland, revealed there are widening health inequalities among adolescents.

Image: Shutterstock/bonzodog

A NEW STUDY shows rising national wealth across high-income countries has brought about both health improvements and declines for teens.

An international study of nearly half a million adolescents from 34 countries across Europe and North America, including Ireland, revealed there are widening health inequalities among adolescents.

The research, published in The Lancet, shows that between 2002 and 2010, the rise in wealth has been associated with increased physical activity and life satisfaction for adolescents.

Obesity 

However, at the same time there has been an increase in body-mass index (BMI) and physical symptoms in adolescents.

The researchers also examined whether differences in health and health inequalities between socioeconomic groups related to national wealth and income inequality.

Researchers found that young people from the poorest groups were more likely to be in worse health.

They are less physically active, have a larger body mass index (BMI), and have more physical and psychological symptoms.

Frank Elgar, lead author and a psychiatry professor at McGill University in Quebec, Canada, said adolescents growing up in poverty often eat poorly not because of ignorance, but because fruit and vegetables are expensive or unavailable in their neighbourhoods.

“However, in these same neighbourhoods, high calorific and low nutritional foods are cheap and abundant,” he added.

Diet 

On the other side of the spectrum, obesity in high-income countries is substantially affected by the social environment that affects diet.

The availability of unhealthy and inexpensive foods plus how the built environment affects physical activity all contributes to obesity in those from higher-income families.

The researchers analysed national data from almost 500,000 young people across Europe and North America who participated in the WHO Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study.

The adolescents, aged 11 to 15, were surveyed in 2002, 2006, and 2010.

Socioeconomic status was based on material assets and common indicators of wealth such a owning a car.

Improvements

Between 2002 and 2010, he said there were improvements in health, such as increased physical activity and life satisfaction in teens, but also declines, such as the increase in body mass and physical symptoms in young people.

At the same time, the difference in health between the least and the most well-off became larger.

For example, the difference in amount of physical activity between the least and most affluent groups increased from 0.79 days to 0.83 days per week.

Increasing differences were also found for body mass index, from 0.15 to 0.18.

Elgar notes that few international studies have focused on social inequalities in adolescent health. 

Adolescents typically get little attention from the health sector because they are thought to be healthy.

However, he said that if interventions are directed at adolescents that can improve health for young people now, then a better foundation can be built for their health in the decades to come.

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