American children are unhealthy on many world standards. Learn more.
If you are like me, being American is a source of great pride… a country that is full of generous, kind, empathetic people. To me, it seems like we have always been the first to arrive when others need help. We freely give our energy and wealth when others are in need. So why is it that when our own children need our help, we are often slow to take action? For reasons I am about to describe to you, I believe our children need our help now! In many respects, as I am about to show you, our children’s physical and mental health are crumbling on world standards and it is up to us to do something. The need for action is immediate and vital to our children’s future. In today’s pedcast, I am going to challenge you and myself to take action. So stay tuned for this important edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics.
Let Me Be Blunt
I started this podcast eight years ago to help inform parents about child health topics to help them raise healthy children. I am proud of the fact that my long time listeners are some of the best informed parents out there. But so many parents don’t have a clue that many of the everyday decisions they are making for their children are really hurting them. News flash, the state of well-being, both physically and mentally, of American children seems to be on a steep downward trajectory. Not for all children but for many of them. To show you what I am talking about, let’s take some accepted clear markers of health and wellness and see where American children are today compared to children around the world, shall we?
Dubious Honor #1: High Obesity Rate
We have all heard about the obesity epidemic among American children but do you really understand the magnitude of the crisis? 31% overweight and 17% frankly obese. Our children are off the charts outliers on world standards. You can easily see this by looking at obesity rates among 15 year olds by country.
And remember, their obesity is likely to translate into a whole host of physical problems for them as they age. Said another way, these children’s obesity may ruin their chances of having a healthy adult life. We are already beginning to see indications of this. Consider the following facts:
- The average life spans among Americans has begun to fall for the past three years running.
- Until recently, children just didn’t develop diseases like type 2 diabetes during childhood. Now it is fairly common because of the obesity epidemic in American children.
- Children have started developing a newly recognized obesity associated chronic liver disease called NASH (non-alcoholic steatohepatitis). Again, this is only seen in very overweight children.
- It is now fairly common for children to have weight associated orthopedic problems like hip fractures, during their childhoods! Again, this is almost always weight associated.
- And finally, let’s not forget the explosion of childhood allergic diseases. we are seeing in the U.S. –asthma, food allergy, allergic rhinitis and eczema.
You see a pattern here? All of these have been linked to diet, lack of exercise, and lifestyle.
Dubious Honor #2: Poor Physical Fitness
Now let’s switch gears and talk about another parameter of health in childhood, physical fitness. The news is not good here either; American children rank 47th out of 50 in a recent British Medical Journal assessment. That’s an abysmal showing. Here is a quote from that study: BMJ study “Our study showed that the fittest kids were from Africa and Central-Northern Europe, while least fit were from South America. America finished at the back of the pack, ranked 47th out of 50, well behind the fittest children who came from Tanzania, Iceland and Estonia and only just in front of the least fit children, those from Mexico, Peru and Latvia. ” What does really mean for these kids as they get older…nothing good since there is a strong relationship between physical fitness in youth and longevity. As I often discuss with parents, if a child are not fit when they are young, when will they be? The answer-probably never.
Dubious Honor #3: High Consumption Consumption of Processed Foods
I think it is fair to say that Americans invented processed foods and we certainly hold the honor of consuming the most of it. This dubious honor certainly dovetails with the obesity epidemic but I thought it was important enough to point out that it got its own dubious honor. Even our grandmothers knew that processed fast food was not good for her kids but now we have reams of scientific studies that have proven that she was right. And you know it, American children are the kings and queens of processed food consumption on world standards. But the rest of the world is catching up quickly according to a report from the Global Panel Agriculture and Food Nutrition Systems. And they are beginning to see all the disease processes that Americans have become all too familiar with–diabetes, hypertension, obesity, chronic liver disease, and cardiovascular diseases. Need I say more.
Dubious Honor #4: Falling Life Expectancy
These parameters have long been used to assess the health of a population, or the health of the social safety net and medical care of a society. Americans look pretty good on this measurement with a pretty good infant mortality rate. On a country by country basis, according to World Bank data, we are have a low infant mortality rate, only bettered by Japan, Iceland, Sweden and Slovenia. But, life expectancy on the other hand, has fallen for the past three years running at the time of this post April 2019. There are many reasons for this but the increasing suicide rate coupled with the opioid epidemic seems to one of many factors driving this in the short run.
Dubious Honor #5: Rising Adolescent Suicide Rate
The adolescent suicide rate is clearly a measure of mental health in children and here, we have good and bad news. American teens, according to a 2005 study, were NOT a standout on this measurement according to a 2005 study in World Psychiatry.
If we use this as a measure of mental health, back then, American children are doing ok on world standards. – World average 7.4/100,000. US 8.0/100,000. But as we have moved into the 21st century, suicides among adolescents in the U.S. have risen as you can see from this more recent study. The graph is confusing but pick out the black line with the diamonds that represents the 15-24 year olds and you will see a very definite uptick, now with a rate of 14.46/100,000.
Dubious Honor #6: Percentage of Infants Exclusively Breastfed for the first 6 months of their lives
We know from thousands of medical studies that breastfeeding babies gives them nutritionally, the best start they can get. So why is that American children are short changed in this respect? Look at the chart my Smo notes and you can see how poorly we are doing on this parameter of child health.
Dubious Honor #7: Deaths and Injuries from Accidental Violence including from Guns
No discussion of child well being can avoid talking about injuries and deaths from accidents. Children are far more likely to die from accidental trauma than from all other causes including birth defects, cancers, and infectious diseases combined. Don’t believe that, just look at this graph of stats from 2016.
What you see is that a death of a U.S. child is likely to be from an accidental injury (car accident or gun accident) not from a disease. And actually, while we are talking about it, the evidence shows that auto engineers and legislators have done a great job of making cars safer for kids but not of protecting them from accidental gun violence where we are off the scale on world standards.
We Can Do Better
I didn’t take the time to point out the problems of American youth to make you feel bad. No, I did it to get folks to take some action and if you think about it, all the above problems have their roots in parenting decisions of which you have control. Your children’s health and well-being depend on you making good decisions now. If you are taking the time to listen to a podcast about child health, chances are that you are already making good parenting decisions for your children… but i’ll bet many people you know aren’t. Until every parent knows how important it is to make good parenting decisions for their kids, we are going to just tread water and our children are going to suffer. What should parents do you ask? Here is my short wish list:
- Eliminate as much processed food in your children’s diets as you can and teach your children the difference between real food and processed foods.
- Cook with your children when they are old enough. They everyone will have fun spending time together, your children will learn how to handle real food, and they will even learn some math and measuring skills.
- Pay attention to your children’s BMI and take it seriously if they move toward obesity. Chubby is not cute when it comes to long term health.
- Turn off the screens and push your children outside. Childhood was meant to be spent outdoors, not in front of a screen. And while you are at it, get outside and play with them yourselves.
- Going somewhere with your children? Whenever possible, walk or ride a bike. You will all have fun and it will be way better for everyone.
- Stay in touch with your teens feelings by chatting frequently. Don’t shy away from conversations about feelings. If you get an indication that they are having hopeless feelings or they their behavior changes drastically, get them help.
- Breastfeed your babies as long as possible. Breastmilk really sets children up for a healthy life from the get go.
- As the AAP says, “Make every ride, a safe ride”, when it comes to moving around in automobiles. Take the time to get your children properly restrained in the proper part of your cars.
- Make sure your children get swim lessons until they become good swimmer–until they are safe in deep water without any flotation devices.
- Make sure your children wear a protective helmet whenever they roll on anything on their own.
- And if you are going to have guns around your house, make sure they are locked, handled with ultimate care, and stored properly.
Making things better for today’s children is everyone’s responsibility. If one of the most generous, literate, and wealthiest people on earth can’t do this, who can? And look at the to do list I just made for you… all really doable with some motivation and energy. We can all do better, especially if you understand how important the stakes are–your children’s current and future health. Come on America, let’s do this.
Well, that’s it for this edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics. If you value the information you hear on this podcast, consider liking our Facebook page, Doc Smo.com or leaving a review on Apple Podcasts. And by all means, send in your comments and share episodes with friends and family. We love to hear from you. This is Dr. Paul Smolen, hoping your children will always have a wealth of health. Until next time.