Fin 24 – A sedentary modern lifestyle and increasing levels of obesity will more than likely lead to today’s children being less healthy than current adults over 65 when they reach the same age, startling results from a global healthcare survey have revealed.
The report, compiled by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and commissioned by science and technology group Merck, has suggested that modern lifestyle-related problems are already triggering health problems among children, including a rising incidence of obesity.
Polling the opinions of educators and parents in Germany, South Africa, India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, while respondents consider the current generation of children as “generally healthy”, 58% of educators believe today’s children will be less healthy than today’s over-65s.
A further 81% of educators surveyed say that children run a high risk of being physically unfit later in life, while 57% believe children are at high risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes.
According to the World Obesity Federation, over 223m global schoolchildren are currently overweight or obese, with recent figures estimating that 15% of South African children fall within this category. Of the five countries surveyed, however, SA brings up the rear.
Saudi Arabia leads the obesity stakes, with 37% of its children classified as obese, followed by Brazil (34%), India (22%) and Germany (20%).
Paradoxically, decreased average health levels and increased rates of global obesity are expected to occur in conjunction with a jump in expected average life expectancy, with today’s generation of children, according to World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, expected to live beyond 100 years.
This means that, while the current generation of children are expected to live longer than their parents, their quality of health, particularly in their later years, is likely to be below that of the prior generation.
Formal interventions lacking
Investigating the nature of existing formal structures in place across schools to educate children on health matters, the survey found that while schools in all five countries targeted primary healthcare issues, such as a lack of exercise and nutrition, they largely ignored issues of mental health in children.
“The importance of education for child health is widely recognised, with educators ranking teachers alongside parents as the most important sources of health education.
“However, wider well-being issues, such as avoiding stress, are largely ignored, and neither parents nor educators report mental health problems as widespread among children.
“Evidence from Germany suggests that mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, rank alongside obesity as the major issues for child health, leading to physical and mental health problems in later life,” EIU research director Aviva Freudmann told the Merck Global Consumer Health Debate last month.
According to the German public health institute the Robert Koch Institute, 20% of German children suffer mental health problems – the same proportion as those that are overweight.
Freudmann added that there is little evidence that school education programmes are managing to stem rising rates of obesity and mental disorders. This is the result of a larger lifestyle issue.
“Outside of school, children in both rich and poor countries spend too much time on sedentary activities, such as watching television or playing computer games – more than half of South African parents report this as a problem,” she explained.
Moreover, parents and educators express widespread concerns over the poor nutrition of children and the fact that they make poor food choices.
While there are gaps in schools’ approach to educating children about health, the study believes the larger problem may lie elsewhere: in the failure to integrate efforts of families, schools, communities and policymakers in promoting healthier lifestyles among children.
Underresourced education systems in countries such as SA, for example, result in schools struggling to meet their primary educational tasks, let alone their responsibility to contribute to child health.
“Lifestyle problems begin and develop at home, with children combining sedentary lifestyles with poor diets – and in some instances acquiring smoking or drinking habits. Parents and communities could do more to counter such development.
“Considering the longer life years that today’s children can expect, it makes sense to focus on health practices that will increase the chances of making those longer life years healthy ones,” concluded Freudmann.
The writer attended the Merck Global Consumer Health Debate in Germany as a guest of Merck.