Young adults' health habits are worse than ten years ago, researchers say

But study finds big improvement among elderly Hispanic women

At the dawn of the 21st century young adults were more likely to be smoking, eating badly and sitting on the couch than their counterparts a decade earlier.

That was one of the most surprising findings of a Stanford Prevention Research Center study looking at more than 187,000 adults. The researchers discovered that the most worrisome health habits of the past decade are occurring in those age 44 and under, with those 18 to 24 faring the worst in terms of smoking, diet and exercise. On an encouraging note, the groups thought to have the most difficulties in remaining healthy – elderly minorities – are making the greatest strides in fighting bad habits.

“Our findings show that young people are headed towards more illness and shorter lifespans,” said associate professor of medicine Marilyn Winkleby, PhD, and lead author of the study that appeared in the September/October issue of The American Journal of Health Promotion.

In a project funded by the National Institutes of Health, Winkleby and research associate Catherine Cubbin, PhD, analyzed responses to a telephone survey of black, Hispanic and white women and men conducted by state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1990 and 2000. The researchers were interested in changes in the respondents’ lifestyle choices concerning cigarette smoking, sedentary behavior and poor diet, and if they were obese. These are all factors known to contribute to chronic diseases with high mortality rates such as cancer, stroke and heart disease. To make the groups as comparable as possible, they statistically removed the differences in education and income so these variables would not play a role in the findings.

Although they anticipated the high rates of obesity – increasing in every group over the decade – there were some unexpected results. “We were surprised at the positive changes in the elderly Hispanic women and also for black men,” said Cubbin. “There’s a false assumption out there that racial/ethnic minorities have worse health behaviors than the white majority population, and we didn’t see that.” They found that black men and older Hispanic women aged 65 to 74 improved their overall risk factors, having the largest increases in physical activity and vegetable and fruit intake.

“We were also surprised at how negative the smoking patterns were for the young white adults; we knew that they smoked more than the other groups but we didn’t expect to see such large increases,” said Cubbin. More than one-third of white men and women ages 18 to 24 were smokers. The researchers stress the necessity of smoking cessation programs and restriction of tobacco advertising to help ease this burden.

The researchers predicted that the result of increased risk behaviors might be higher future rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and lung disease. “The whole population is aging, so we are going to have a higher chronic disease burden, but it could even be worse given the changes that are going on in the young population,” said Cubbin. “That combined with aging of the population is going to put a huge burden on the health-care system.”