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Study Calls Obesity in Children an 'Epidemic'

The health of the nation's children has been set back 30 years by a rising tide of obesity, according to a new analysis. The Child Well-Being Index, prepared by Duke University for the Foundation for Child Development, calls childhood obesity the single most widespread health problem facing children today, to a point that 'it can be considered a modern day epidemic.'

The report found that the burden of obesity is so heavy that an index of children's health fell 15 percent below 1975 levels. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 15.6 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 19 were obese in 2002, up from 6.1 percent in 1974.

The overall health index also takes into account infant mortality; low birth rates; overall mortality of children from age 1 to 19; the percentage of children whose parents reported in government surveys that the child's health limits their activity; and the share of parents who consider their children in 'very good' or 'excellent' health.

Despite the lower ratings for health, the report card concludes that overall, children are slightly better off than they were in the mid-1970's--they are more connected to their communities and less likely to use illegal drugs, be victims of violent crime and give birth. On the downside, they are more likely to live in poverty and to attempt suicide.

'Kids are doing better, but they are not doing nearly as well as they should be given this country's advances in education, health and social programs,' said Kenneth Land, the Duke sociologist who developed the index. 'As parents, and as a country, we ought to be doing better by our children.'

The biggest gains came in terms of safety. The report notes that 44 of every 1,000 people between the ages of 12 and 15 were likely to be victims of violent crime in 2002, down from 77 per 1,000 in 1974, according to the Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Rates of juvenile crime, illicit drug use, school dropout rates and teen pregnancy have all declined since the mid-'70's and particularly since the mid-'90's. The report also noted that economic downturns in the 1980s and early '90s put more children in poverty.

'The years 1981-1994 were a particularly troubling time for children and youth in America,' Land said. 'An economic recession and changes in family structures that left many children under age 18 in single-parent households led to a notable downturn in the well-being index. It has taken us almost 15 years to recover from that time and re-create supportive family environments.'

The percentage of children living in single-parent households, mainly with their mothers, increased or remained above the starting level every year between 1975 and 2002. Improvements in some social support programs, particularly the federal effort to extend health insurance coverage to children, has helped offset the negative impact of this trend, the researchers said. But they expressed concern that continued unemployment and program cuts from the current recession may further worsen conditions for children.

Scripps Howards News Service, March, 2004

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