Old Age and Children : Demography – Curse or Blessing?
(Study by The Economist EIU sponsored by Merck)
With this as background, The Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Merck, undertook a study of five nations—representing both wealthy and middle-income countries—to determine the degree to which good health practices are being taught in schools and fostered in the home and in the community.
Where relevant, the research also considers whether health education is being provided in the context of the long-term benefits—that is, with the aim of achieving longer healthy life years. The five countries surveyed are Germany, South Africa, India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.
1. Today’s children will be less healthy than today’s adults over 65 when they reach that age
In our survey, well over half of educators say that children will grow up to be less healthy than today’s over-65s.
Both parents and educators consider children (and old people) to be generally healthy, but worry about children having sedentary lifestyles, being overweight and having unhygienic living conditions. All of these factors can hurt children’s health later in life.
2. Lifestyle-related problems are likely to contribute to chronic disease in later life and are already causing health problems among children
Four-fifths (81%) of educators surveyed say that children run a high risk of being physically unfit later in life, and 57% say children risk developing chronic diseases such as diabetes.
They also worry about the impact of malnutrition, the risk of mental illnesses such as depression in later life, and the risk of future addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Close to one-third (32%) of parents surveyed whose children are not in good health report that at least one of their children already suffers from a chronic physical illness.
Despite expressing concern over their children’s diet and sedentary lifestyles, few parents say their children are overweight, perhaps suggesting a limited awareness of the problems.
3. Across the five countries surveyed, schools are targeting the main perceived problems, such as lack of exercise, but are ignoring mental health issues in children
Most schools provide exercise classes and emphasise nutrition and hygiene education. 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.
6 . Children are considered well informed about health and how their behaviour today will impact them later in life
Across the five countries surveyed, a large majority of educators say that children understand how their current health habits will affect them in later life.
Children have regular contact with elderly people, but there is less emphasis in schools on promoting contact between old and young people, or on teaching the link between healthy practices today and health in old age.
Both parents and educators nonetheless believe strongly that teaching young people about good health practices benefits their health in the long term.
5. There is little evidence that such school education programmes are managing to stem rising rates of obesity and mental disorders 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, our surveys show; more than half of South African parents report that this as a problem. The surveys also show widespread concerns about children having poor nutrition and making poor nutritional choices. As a result of lack of exercise and poor diet, obesity is rising across the world, and especially in middle-income countries such as Saudi Arabia and Brazil. In Germany, the number of overweight children has stabilised at a high level, but child obesity continues to rise. In rich countries, mental health issues among children have increased rapidly; experts say that close to one-fifth of German children have possible symptoms, and doctors in the US report similar problems. However, this has only recently been identified, and our survey suggests little awareness of the scale of the problem: just 9% of parents surveyed say their children might show symptoms of mental health problems, suggesting they might not be detected or treated.
6. Many of today’s efforts centre on the formal school curriculum. To be more effective, however, health education should be more comprehensive and should target general lifestyle problems In our survey, only a small minority of parents say that community sports and health programmes are available for their children, with little effort to actively promote their use. In contrast, more than half of educators think such programmes are available. Schools in all of the countries surveyed focus formal health education on exercise and avoiding substance abuse. However, few address cultural problems.
Saudi Arabia recognises that it has a big child obesity problem, but is not addressing cultural barriers to better practice, such as lack of opportunity for girls to exercise.
South Africa has launched a successful campaign against high levels of HIV/ AIDS infection centring on increased vaccination. However, there is no evidence of better education leading to reduced infection rates among high-risk groups, including adolescent girls.
South Africa and India have relied on international aid donors to support the fight against malaria and HIV. However, there are no similar international aid programmes to tackle the surge in both countries in child obesity and child mental health problems.
Access to health and education services can be patchy in India and Brazil; the rapid rise in child obesity is partly blamed on weak education and public-health services. School meals are an important part of child nutrition, but they can be too lightly regulated; even Germany has no mandatory nutrition requirements, and India is criticised for the low nutritional content of school meals.
Germany is trying to develop a comprehensive plan to tackle child health problems at school and community level. This involves efforts to make kids more active during breaks and to train teachers to identify mental health problems at an early age. None of the middle-income countries surveyed has similar programmes.