Adolescent health inequalities a ticking time bomb

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Adolescent Health

Widening health inequalities among young people in Europe and North America are storing up huge problems for the future, according to new research by the University of St Andrews, published online today by The Lancet.

The paper claims the impact of childhood and adolescent social inequalities on adult health is being overlooked with potentially devastating consequences.

The research at the University of St Andrews was carried out by Professor Candace Currie, International Coordinator of the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children Study (HBSC) – a World Health Organisation (WHO) collaboration in 44 countries. The co-author of The Lancet paper is Professor Frank Elgar, McGill University, Montreal.

Professor Currie said, “Adolescents growing up in high income countries are typically considered to be in good health, which may explain why they are often overlooked in health policy.

“However, while many experience excellent health, this resource for life is not evenly distributed across the population.  Young people from poorer family backgrounds, poorer countries and more economically unequal societies in Europe and North America fare worse than their peers across a wide range of physical and mental health indicators.“

The research by Prof Currie and her international colleagues in Canada, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands recognises that adolescents inhabit a world of great opportunity in relation to health, education, occupation, social engagement, discovery and fulfilment. But they warn it is also a world laden with risks that can affect their ability to achieve full health both now and in the future, reducing their opportunities for education, and leading to isolation, frustrated ambition and disappointment.

The new research evidence proves that inequalities in health among adolescents have widened over the last decade, with prospects for the most vulnerable young people declining.

“This is a critical moment for policy attention to focus on the health of those in the second decade of life suffering health inequity,” continued Prof Currie. “More than ever, prospects for their wellbeing during adolescence and into adulthood are being greatly challenged by the prevailing economic climate.”

Prof Currie and the co-authors of the paper are recognised as experts in adolescent health and the social and health inequalities that young people are increasingly experiencing in their lives. As members of the international HBSC research network, their research provides policy-makers and professionals in education, health, social services and justice with valuable information about trends, challenges and successes in adolescent health.

A crucial data resource, the HBSC study provides critical insights into the health-related behaviours of young people. Since its inception in 1983, the study’s unique methodology has facilitated engagement with 1,000,000 school-aged children across Europe and North America, deepening understanding of the social determinants that are known to affect young people’s health and well-being.

Prof Currie concluded, “This most recent cycle of HBSC research proves that health inequalities in young people have grown apace with increasing socioeconomic disparities between the rich and poor in Western society.

“For the sake of future health and wellbeing, it is vital that government policy looks beyond average health and disease prevalence. Tackling the unjust inequities that exist now in adolescent health across increasingly disparate socioeconomic conditions will be a positive step towards reducing their impact in adult life.”


Notes to News Editors

  • The international HBSC Study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and numerous funding organisations in Europe and the US.
  • The HBSC International Coordinating Centre is based within the Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit in the School of Medicine, University of St Andrews. Professor Currie has coordinated the HBSC Study for the past 20 years.
  • The CAHRU is a specialist research unit focusing on child and adolescent health within school-aged populations globally. The Unit’s research and work considers the circumstances in which young people live, their access to health care, schools and leisure opportunities and their homes, communities, towns and cities. It also reflects individual and cultural characteristics such as social status, gender, age and ethnicity, values and discrimination.
  • The School of Medicine at the University of St Andrews was recently designated a WHO Collaborating Centre for International Child and Adolescent Health Policy.
  • The Unit is currently working on the 2013/14 HBSC international survey results for publication towards the end of 2015.

Professor Currie is available for interview:

  • Professor Candace Currie (University of St Andrews) – International Coordinating Centre, Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit  tel: 01334 461741. Email: [email protected]

The paper Socioeconomic inequalities in adolescent health 2002-2010: a time-series analysis of 34 countries participating in the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study, by Frank J Elgar, Timo-Kalija Pfortner, Irene Moor, Bart De Clercq, Gonneke WJM Stevens and Candace Currie, will be available online at:

Advance copies of the paper are available from the University of St Andrews Communications Office, contactable on 01334 467230, or at [email protected]

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