Roughly 1.8 billion adolescents and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 live in today’s world, representing the largest generation of adolescents in human history. These young people face never-before-seen shifts in populations, economies, technology, health, and the environment. The benefits of helping today’s adolescents navigate these shifts and develop into healthy adults extend to future generations.
In recognition of the critical need to support adolescents, The Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing released a report on the current state of adolescent health around the world, and the challenges and opportunities for addressing it. Below are some key findings from the report.
Why Should We Focus on Adolescence?
In the United States, early childhood is widely recognized as a critical developmental period, but adolescence garners far less attention, despite its importance in establishing adult health and stability. During the teen and young adult years, the tremendous physical and mental changes that adolescents undergo prime them for creating their own lives beyond their families. While timing and appearance vary, adolescents pass key milestones on the road to adulthood, including completing education, finding a job, and establishing romantic partnerships and/or other social connections.
As the phase in life directly preceding adulthood, adolescence has large and immediate impacts not only on young people themselves, but future generations. Today’s adolescents are the next in line to fill the workforce and create families. Through their development and completion of milestones, adolescents build and acquire the health, financial independence, and social capital that they will use not only in their adult lives but that they will pass on to their children. Taking action for adolescent health now ensures the health of future generations.
What Does Adolescent Health Look Like Today?
The increasing number of adolescents is partly related to advances in health and medicine, particularly in eliminating infectious diseases. However, this progress has not spread evenly across the globe, and as a result, countries have radically different adolescent health profiles.
The Lancet Commission categorized the global burden of disease into three categories, each with their own challenges:
- About one third of adolescents (661 million) live in non-communicable disease (NCD) predominant countries. Most high-income countries fall into this category, including the United States. The top adolescent health issues are related to mental and substance use disorders (e.g., depression, tobacco use) and chronic physical diseases (e.g., diabetes).
- Roughly one in eight adolescents (219 million) lives in an injury excess country, where unintentional injury and violence are the primary causes of disability and death.
- Half of all adolescents (917 million) live in multi-burden countries, where both injury and NCDs are a major concern along with infectious disease, malnutrition, and other conditions related to poverty. Most of the countries in Africa fall into this category, along with India and its neighbors, and several Southeast Asian island nations.
Additionally, wide variation may exist within particular countries. For example, four of China’s provinces could be classified as injury excess, even though the country is classified as NCD prominent overall.
Health is also influenced by varied social and structural factors known as the social determinants of health. While a number of social determinants impact adolescents, The Lancet Commission specifically identifies four: family, peers, education/employment, and the media. What these determinants look like and how they affect health are rapidly changing, creating unprecedented challenges and opportunities for adolescent health.
While the adolescent health issues facing countries and localities differ, all communities can take action to support adolescent health and development.
What Can We Do to Promote Adolescent Health?
Addressing the health needs of today’s adolescents can seem like a daunting task, but there are several key opportunities that offer hope. In particular, guaranteeing and supporting adolescents’ ability to access and complete their secondary education has been named as the single best investment for their health and well-being. Other opportunities identified by the Commission include addressing preventable and treatable adolescent health conditions (e.g., HIV/AIDS, injury, infectious diseases) and establishing systems that train, mentor, and encourage the participation of youth health advocates that make health care more responsive to adolescents’ needs.
The report points out that the most powerful actions for adolescent health cut across sectors and include multiple components. OAH’s national call-to-action, Adolescent Health: Think, Act, Grow® (TAG), seeks to foster this multi-level, multi-sectoral collaboration. You can use the TAG action steps to support adolescent health in your work.
Over the next four OAH Picks, OAH will delve further into The Lancet‘s primary social determinants of health affecting adolescents, how they relate to the outstanding opportunities for adolescent health, and tools that youth-serving professionals and others can use to promote adolescent health.