Nearly half the world’s population – more than 3 billion people – is under the age of 25. This enormous cohort of young people represents tremendous hope and potential, as the vanguard of future societies from Boston to Bujumbura. At the same time, adolescents and young people have particular health needs, which distinguish them in significant ways from both children and adults. After months of negotiations, the final political declaration approved by the UN last week recognized this fact – though barely.
Adolescence is a vulnerable period which places its members at risk of forming and solidifying behaviors that can influence them for the rest of their lives. While the global health community has long been aware that the initiation of sexual activity that often comes during adolescence can pose risks to health, the commencement of other activities at this time, such as drinking, smoking and engaging in poor eating habits - is less frequently discussed. These behaviors place youth at great risk for acquiring non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
But while it’s critical to acknowledge these facts, it is just as important to view adolescents and youth in an affirmative way. Young people are the future, and they should be empowered to make healthy decisions for themselves and their communities. This perspective requires a change in mindset - away from seeing youth as associated only with problems and challenges, such as violence, criminal activity, drug abuse and unprotected sex – and toward seeing them as key allies who can lead us toward a healthier future. It requires giving young people the information they need to make healthy decisions, and supporting changes in social norms that will allow them to do so.
Adolescence represents an opportunity to stop the growing global scourge of NCDs; a time to “get it right.” Imagine a society where teens don’t smoke, consume soda on a daily basis, or hang out at fast food establishments. What if all adolescents walked vigorously for 30 minutes every day, and if adolescent girls were empowered to take informed decisions about their health? Such a society would immediately begin turning the tide of NCDs.
As we build on the momentum generated by last week’s UN High Level Meeting on NCDs, let’s work to break the cycle. Let’s work with adolescents, including adolescent girls, to create a healthier world for us all.