Are we failing the young people of today?

07 May 2019 | Science and research

The Association for Young People’s Health (AYPH) is the UK’s leading independent voice for the health and wellbeing of people aged 10–24 years. Dr Ann Hagell (left), AYPH’s Research Lead, and Dr Rakhee Shah (right), the organisation's Research Associate, share the highlights from AYPH’s recent report.

Many, if not most, of our health behaviours such as smoking and drinking are established in our teens and early 20s. As young people move from the control of their families into a world where they look after their own health, they decide for themselves how they are going to live. It’s a time full of potential but also risk. It’s a time when young people may need support to establish healthy life choices which they can carry into later life. The teenage years and early 20s therefore provide us with a vital opportunity to intervene and promote health.

How are our young people doing? 

In our new report for the Nuffield Trust, a health thinktank, the AYPH took a list of 17 measures of health and wellbeing, and compared the UK’s 10–24-year-olds with those living in 18 similar high-income countries. We also looked at trends in some of these indicators over the last 20 years to see whether things are getting better or worse.

The good news

There are many similarities between all the countries. For example, 16–24-year-olds have been smoking less and drinking less over the past decade. This is good news as smoking causes at least 15 different types of cancer, and is the largest preventable cause of cancer in adults. There is also a strong consensus that drinking alcohol can cause six different types of cancer. Cancer deaths have also been falling in this age group over the last decade.

Bearing all this in mind, it's positive that young people in the UK are making healthier life choices when they are supported to do so.

The bad news

We found, however, that the UK’s young people are more overweight and do less exercise than other high-income countries. As well as having the highest rates of obesity in 15–19-year-olds compared with 14 European countries, the UK also has one of the greatest differences in obesity levels between young people living in the poorest areas of the country and young people in the richest areas. In England and Wales, fewer 11-year-olds do two or more hours of vigorous exercise a week compared with many other countries. These results are concerning because adolescents who are obese are five times more likely to be obese as adults. Obesity is the second biggest preventable cause of cancer among adults and the risk of cancer increases with the length of time that people are overweight.

Reducing risk

It is crucial that age-appropriate interventions focus on getting young people to do more exercise, especially teenagers – when exercise levels typically drop. Policies that focus on reducing obesity and maintaining a healthy weight in adolescence and in the early 20s play a vital role in adult cancer prevention.

It's a common misperception that lifestyle choices to prevent cancer are only relevant to us as adults. However, as most of the life-long health-related behaviours start in adolescence and in the early 20s, we argue that cancer prevention should follow a life-course approach. It should focus on the 10–24 age-group, who face a range of challenges as they transition from childhood to adulthood. Tackling inequalities in obesity and smoking rates in this age group could play a vital role in tackling inequalities in cancer in the future adult population.  

Our international comparisons tell us that we can, and must, do better to improve the state of young people’s health in the UK and ensure healthy adults in the future.

Read AYPH's report, International comparisons of health and wellbeing in adolescence and early adulthood.

Our Cancer Health Check is a great way for people aged 18 and over to look at their lifestyle choices. Try it now!

Dr Ann Hagell, Dr Rakhee Shah | 07 May 2019