In recent weeks and months, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have become a key talking point in the global health sphere. Despite common misconceptions, NCDs (defined by the World Health Organization to mainly include cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, and chronic lung disease) are the leading causes of death worldwide. Another misconception around NCDs is that most of these diseases occur in richer countries and are diseases of affluence. Not true either. According to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), 80 percent of NCD deaths occurred in lower-income countries, up from 40 percent in 1990.
And lastly, NCDs only occur in adults, especially older adults. Wrong again.
Our generation of young people is the largest ever: 43% of the world’s population is under the age of 25. Many risk factors for NCDs, including tobacco and alcohol use and diet, are established during adolescence. Evidence and statistics back this up: 20-40% of adolescents are overweight; and globally, between 80,000 and 100,000 young people start smoking EVERY DAY.
Not only are young people not immune to NCDs… the prevalence of NCDs among youth and adolescents is on the rise. For example, according to a study by Johns Hopkins, 1 in 10 young people have asthma and by the age of 15 more than 25% of obese adolescents have early signs of diabetes.
But NCDs include other health issues like mental illness, motor vehicle accidents, homicides, suicides, and other types of violence. It is estimated that 500 young people die every day due to interpersonal violence.
At the end of last year, the Lancet published its first ever series entirely dedicated to the subject of adolescent health. The papers in this series noted, among many other things, that there remains a huge gap in data pertaining to NCDs in young people. Researchers also found that while the health outcomes for younger children (especially those under 5 years of age) has improved significantly in the last 50 years, the health of adolescents has improved far less so. Much of this is due to both a general focus in the global health community to children under 5 (ie the MDGs) and due to the changing burden of disease among adolescents.
Sawyer et. al’s paper, “Adolescence: a foundation for future health,” road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among people aged 10-24 years. When combined with suicide and homicide, violence and war, drownings and other accidents accounted for 40 percent of ALL deaths of people aged 10-24.
So what does this all mean? It means that youth and adolescents are indeed vulnerable to NCDs. It also means that because of this, young people have to be involved in the development of the new set of international development and health targets beyond 2015 (when the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, expire). And finally, it means that without addressing the specific preventative health needs of young people – like obesity, tobacco and alcohol use, mental health, and accidents – such goals and targets cannot be achieved.