Unhealthy Habits

Ok, there are those dreaded pimples and that mess of raging hormones. But most American teens aren't battling the scourges of adulthood--cancer, heart disease, arthritis. What young people are facing is their own minefield of health risks: an overwhelming array of behavioral and lifestyle choices and pressures from what to eat to whether or not to smoke or use illegal drugs. What they decide now could affect their health for a lifetime. Here's a look at how they're doing:

Eating: Snack foods and sodas rule. On a scale of zero to 100 in the government's Healthy Eating Index (80 and up being "good"), teens scored in the low 60s, earning them a big fat "needs improvement." Only about one in 10 adolescents gets the recommended two to four daily servings of fruit. They do slightly better with veggies, with about one fourth scarfing down the recommended three to five. But that doesn't mean they're filling up on carrots and spinach--french fries, potato chips and pizza sauce all count.

Even more worrisome are a disturbing duo: eating disorders and rising obesity. More than half of all teen girls say they are or should be on a diet--incessantly battling the 40 pounds they naturally gain as they grow between the ages of 8 and 14. About 3 percent take it to the extreme, spiraling into bulimia or anorexia. There are no precise numbers, but researchers say eating disorders appear to be on the rise and are affecting children as young as 8. The health effects include osteoporosis, organ failure--even death. While far more common in girls, boys are also vulnerable. And they have their own obsession: the muscular look. Jackie Berning of the American Dietetic Association says creatine, an amino acid supplement used by athletes to build muscle power, is now "the hot new thing" among teen boys. Most assume it's harmless, but its safety hasn't been tested long term.

Experts are increasingly worried about obesity, too. Today a record one in five teens is overweight (as defined by a weight-to-height ratio), putting them at increased risk for heart disease, the nation's No. 1 killer. The immediate effects are already evident: weight-related type II diabetes--once called "adult-onset"--is now being diagnosed more frequently in adolescents. Sedentary lifestyles are a big part of the problem. Daily enrollment in high-school P.E. classes dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 25 percent in 1995. And when teens aren't working after school or slogging through homework, many are watching TV or surfing the chat rooms. Burning energy? Not.

Sleeping: Given the hurried-up, tech-driven lives they lead, adolescents aren't exactly well rested. They should get at least nine hours of sleep every night, but only about 15 percent do. And a full quarter get less than six, says Dr. Mary Carskadon of Brown University. They're "hugely sleep deprived," she says. High-school students, whose biological clocks keep them up later at night, have it the worst. Nearly 40 percent go to sleep after 11 o'clock on school nights, but have to be alert at their desks as early as 7:15. "It's equivalent to sending adults to a business meeting at 4 a.m.," says Dr. Mark Mahowald, director of the Minneapolis Regional Sleep Disorders Center. Some schools are changing their clocks to address the problem. At Broughton High in Raleigh, N.C., the opening bell was moved from 7:30 to 8:15 last August. A little more sleep--and maybe even time for breakfast. "They seem more awake and ready to learn," says assistant principal Mike Ludwich.

Drinking, drugs and smoking: There's some preliminary good news here. Drinking, some drug use and cigarette smoking either held fairly steady or declined slightly last year after climbing in the early- to mid-1990s, according to the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. Many teens are getting the message and deciding it's cool to stay clean. But still, there are more than 3,000 new young cigarette smokers every day in this country. One third of high-school seniors have used marijuana and about the same number now qualify as binge drinkers, consuming five or more drinks in a row over the course of two weeks. About one in 20 high schoolers has used the club-drug ecstasy, and heroin use, while small, has doubled since 1991. "You can't go to a party where someone isn't smoking weed or getting drunk," says 17-year-old Marcus Robinson, a peer counselor and junior at Westlake High in Ohio. The side effects are huge: both smoking and drinking make kids much more likely to have sex, placing them at higher risk for STDs.

Mental health: Eating disorders, sleep problems and substance abuse can all be critical clues to mental turmoil. Anxiety disorders are the most pervasive psychiatric problems in teens: 13 percent of children between 9 and 17 suffer conditions ranging from chronic worrying to severe social phobia. The big concern is suicide, which is highly associated with depression. Every year, one in 13 high-school students attempts suicide--girls try to kill themselves more often than boys, but boys succeed far more frequently. "An amazing number of kids are either thinking about suicide, making suicide attempts or even dying," says Dr. David Shaffer, a child psychiatrist at Columbia University. Shaffer is hopeful that a decline in teen suicides over the last few years will continue downward, but the rate is still staggering--three times higher among males in the 1990s than it was in the early 1960s.

In the end, teens should and will make their own choices. But they're more likely to make the best ones if the adults in their lives do the right thing--communicate, pay attention and set a good example themselves.

Unhealthy Habits | News