A nation is only as healthy as its children.
— Harry Truman (1946)
Approximately 27 percent of U.S. children live with chronic health conditions that can affect their daily lives and normal activities. These maladies often contribute greatly to school absenteeism and require continual medical attention.
Many studies suggest chronic health problems, along with learning and developmental disorders, appear to be on the rise. These rising childhood illnesses include, but are not limited to:
- Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADHD)
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
- Auto-immune disorders
- Developmental/Learning Disorders
- Cardiovascular problems
- Cerebral Palsy
- Cystic fibrosis
- Food allergies
- Respiratory allergies
- Sickle cell anemia
- Spina bifida
The Vulnerable Child—Chronic Illness in U.S. Children
The number of children in the United States with chronic health conditions has dramatically increased in the past four decades, doubling from 12.8 percent in 1994 to 26.6 percent in 2006.
- One in 10 children has asthma.1
- Cancer is the leading cause of death in children. More than 15,000 children were diagnosed in 2014.2
- Food allergies affect one in every 13 children.3
- Heart disease is the fifth leading cause of death in 1-5 year olds.4
- ADHD is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder and affects one in 10 children.5
- Juvenile diabetes increased 23 percent between 2001 and 2009.6
- One in six children has a developmental disability.7
- One in 68 children are affected by autism.8
- Epilepsy/seizures affects one in 20 children.9
- 33 percent of childhood diseases are caused by environmental exposure.10
On a larger public health scale, chronic illnesses are also responsible for 7 in 10 American deaths—twice as many deaths as all infectious/communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, combined—and they account for 78 cents of every health care dollar spent.11
Why are today’s children sicker than ever before?
“While genes may play a role in obesity, asthma and ADHD, environmental and social changes are behind the surge,” researchers said.12
In 2006, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a comprehensive study that suggests more than 33 percent of diseases affecting children under the age of five are caused by environmental exposures, and that by preventing these exposures, as many as four million children’s lives a year worldwide could be saved.13
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
Chronic diseases and conditions—such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity and arthritis—are among the most common, costly and preventable of all health problems.14
The Price We Pay for Chronic Illness Unfortunately, the state of health among U.S. children does not reflect the standard of health expected for a child living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. According to a 2010 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, chronic illnesses in children doubled from 12.8 percent in 1994 to 26.6 percent in 2006, with low-income, racial and ethnic minority children being disproportionately affected.15
This disturbing and costly trend would appear to confirm another earlier Harvard study that found U.S. children were sicker today than their parent’s generation.12
The number of children with chronic illnesses has quadrupled since the time when some of their parents were kids, portending more disability and higher health costs for a new generation of adults.
Doctors and public health officials should be bracing for a wave of chronically ill young adults with weight-related ailments that include diabetes and heart disease.
As a nation of enormous wealth and prosperity, we have made great strides in controlling infectious diseases. However, the U.S. now must direct resources toward preventing and controlling chronic illnesses in our children.
Prevention is better than cure
Prevention, education, and investing in the health of all children would help prevent the exacerbation of many illnesses, and alleviate the epidemic of chronic disease that currently exists.
Change is possible. Change is necessary!
Steps to a Healthier Child
Health experts agree there is an urgent need to implement targeted interventions aimed at preventing chronic childhood illnesses.
Note: This article was reprinted with permission. It was originally published by Focus for Health.
1 Journal of the American Medical Association. Dynamics of Obesity and Chronic Health Conditions Among Children and Youth. 2010.
2 National Cancer Institute. Cancer in Children and Adolescents.
3 Food Allergy Research & Education. Facts and Statistics.
4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 10 Leading Causes of Death by Age Group, United States – 2012.
5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
6 The JAMA Network. Prevalence of Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Among Children and Adolescents From 2001 to 2009,
7 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Key Findings: Trends in the Prevalence of Developmental Disabilities in U. S. Children, 1997–2008.
8 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
9 National Academy of Sciences. The Public Health Dimensions of the Epilepsies.
10 World Health Organization. Almost a quarter of all disease caused by environmental exposure. June 16, 2006.
11 National Center for Biotechnology Information. Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Chronic Diseases of Youths and Access to Health Care in the United States. 2013.
12 Zimm A. Children Sicker Now Than in Past, Harvard Report Says. 2007.
13 World Health Organization. Preventing disease through healthy environments. Towards an estimate of the environmental burden of disease. 2006.
14 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Diseases: The Leading Causes of Death and Disability in the United States.
15 Journal of the American Medical Association. Dynamics of Obesity and Chronic Health Conditions Among Children and Youth. 2010.