Western Children Less Sexually Active Than Thought, But More Prone To Obesity And Future Heart Disease

Unhealthy Behaviors Among Kids Abound, With Diet And Exercise Most Problematic
In recent studies of Western children, researchers found evidence of low sexual activity but high levels of obesity with precursors for heart disease. CDC.gov

A new round of studies shows that Western children and teenagers are less sexually active than commonly thought, but precocious in other areas, including alcohol consumption and unhealthy eating habits leading to heart disease and obesity.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics this month suggests that American adolescents are no more sexually active today than in previous years, despite highly sexualized portrayals in film, television and other media.

Lawrence Finer, author and director of domestic research for the Guttmacher Institute, led the study. "When you look at some polling data of the general public, there are chunks of Americans who believe most [adolescents] are having sex," he said. "But it was never the case...and these are long-term patterns."

The study showed only 0.6 percent of 10-year-olds, 1.1 percent of 11-year-olds and 2.4 percent of 12-year-olds -- both boys and girls -- report intercourse or other sexual behavior. However, among those reporting sexual experiences 62 percent of girls who'd had sex by age 10 said they'd been coerced, with 50 percent of 11-year-old girls and 23 percent of 12-year-old girls reporting the same.  

The study also uncovered some other disturbing numbers, with increasingly more children in the United Kingdom getting drunk and children and teenagers from both sides of the Atlantic growing obese with precursors of heart disease.

Journalists in Britain obtained data from 99 of 166 National Health Service hospital trusts under a Freedom of Information request, finding that 380 children aged 10 and under were treated for alcohol abuse between 2008 and 2012, with one case even involving a 7-year-old boy treated for "addiction" at a hospital in Sussex. During those years, hundreds of children received emergency room treatment for alcohol intoxication, including one "baby" who sustained a drunken head injury, according to Ferrari Press Agency.

Nick Barton, chief executive of the charity Action on Addiction, pointed to alcoholic parents as the source of childhood problems with alcohol, saying that 22 percent of British children live with an alcoholic parent.

"Children who grow up in homes where their parents have alcohol and drug problems are seven times more likely to develop substance misuse problems themselves," he said. "A particularly worrying finding was the lack of awareness among parents about the effects of their drinking on their children."

Two other studies showed that poor eating habits were common among children in both countries, with 22 percent of British 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds obese, and a total of 1.3 million severely overweight children. By adolescence, the rate climbs to 34 percent of children, according to the UK Department of Health. In the U.S., approximately one-third of children are classified as obese with an 18 percent obesity rate among children ages 6 to 11 -- up seven percent during the past 30 years -- and 18 percent among American teenagers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a recent study, the American Heart Association found precursors of heart disease, the nation's biggest killer, among teenagers, with just one percent eating a "perfectly healthy" diet. Christina Shay, of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, led the study, finding that 80 percent consumed diets that would lead directly to heart disease.

"The far less-than-optimal physical activity levels and dietary intake of current U.S. teenagers, is translating into obesity and overweight that, in turn, is likely influencing worsening rates of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood glucose at these young ages," said Shay.

Though many believe heart disease to be the domain of the middle-aged and elderly, heart disease and other ailments may lie dormant among the young, researchers warn.

 "Autopsy findings reported more than a century ago identified fatty streaks in the large arteries of children as young as 6 years of age," Shay's research group wrote in the journal Circulation.

Likewise, other studies have found unhealthy cholesterol levels in children, though blood pressure remains a bright spot: 90 percent of girls and 78 percent of boys boasting healthy scores there.

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