Teenagers—and their parents—have a lot of changes to face, some of which can be difficult and which may involve physical and mental health. The health needs and challenges of teens and adolescents may overlap with other age groups, but there are many unique things that these growing young people face. Both teens and their parents need to be aware of these factors and to understand how to cope with any problems as they arise.
These health issues include some things that all teens face, including the changes that accompany puberty. But, there are also health issues that not all teens deal with, including substance abuse, risky behaviors, mental health conditions, sexual health, pregnancy, violence, and even diabetes. The unique health challenges facing teens are important to understand and to be educated about, for teens and the adults who care about them.
Leading Causes of Death for Teens
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collects data on the leading causes of death for Americans by age group. Understanding the top ten things that kill young people is troubling, but also important. It helps to shed light on some of the most important health issues that teens face. For Americans between the ages of ten and 24, the top two causes of death are unintentional injury and suicide. The most common deadly unintentional injury is motor vehicle crashes.
For teens 15 and older, homicide is the third leading cause of death; it is the fourth for teens 14 and younger. Cancer and heart disease are also leading causes of death for American teens, as are congenital anomalies, or birth or genetic defects that cause disease. Rounding out the top ten causes of death for teens in the U.S. are the flu, pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and diabetes. The latter is a growing concern for teens as obesity rates soar for this age group.
Puberty and Changing Bodies
Puberty is the process of the body becoming sexually mature, and it occurs for girls between the ages of 10 and 14 and for boys between the ages of 12 and 16. Not all boys and girls will fit into this timeline and that is not always cause for concern. Some will be earlier and others later, but there can be issues associated with abnormally early or late puberty that could signal hormonal problems or underlying conditions.
During puberty, hormonal changes in the body trigger physical changes that lead to sexual maturity, but these are also accompanied by other changes. Puberty leads to intellectual, emotional, mental, and social development as well as physical changes. These changes are normal, but may lead to unique challenges for teens. Adults may struggle to remember what it was like, but it helps when parents are patient and empathetic with their teens.
Teens going through puberty may struggle with body image and self-confidence, become moodier, strive for greater independence and show signs of rebelling, and become more susceptible to peer-pressure. These changes can potentially lead to health problems, like mental illness, eating disorders, risky behaviors, and conflicts with parents and other adults.
Motor Vehicle Crashes
Unintentional injuries, in other words accidents, kill more teens than anything else and most of those accidents involve motor vehicles. According to the CDC, 2,270 teens were killed in 2014 in motor vehicle accidents while over 220,000 were treated in the emergency room after accidents that year. The scope of the problem is big, and those situations that pose the greatest risks include male teen drivers, teen drivers with teen passengers in the car, and newly licensed teens.
The tragedy of the problem is that these deaths and injuries are preventable. To prevent accidents teens need to take driving lessons, not drive with peers in the car, avoid drinking while driving, wear their seat belts, avoid distracted driving, such as driving with a mobile device, and limit driving at night. Risky behaviors are normal with teens, to some degree, as they test the limits of their independence, but driving is too dangerous to take risks.
Violence and Homicide
The second leading cause of death for teens is homicide, but violence in general is also an issue for teenage health. Teens may be involved in violence as the perpetrators, victims, or bystanders. Teenage violence may include bullying behaviors, fighting, gang activity, and using weapons. The consequences of violence can be serious, ultimately including death by homicide. Violence can also cause injuries and emotional trauma. Those teens that are victims of violence or who witness violence may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions.
Mental Health and Suicide
Any teen may be at risk for mental illness and its consequences, but the most serious potential consequence is suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in teens, and like motor vehicle crashes—the number one killer of teens—there are steps that can be taken to prevent it. Prevention of suicide includes making sure teens are receiving good mental health care. This includes evaluation and diagnosis for any mental illnesses followed by effective treatment. Education and awareness in teens, parents, and other adults is also important for prevention of suicide. When people around teens are able to recognize warning signs of suicidal thoughts, they can take appropriate steps to get that teen help.
Teens are susceptible to a number of mental illnesses, but particularly mood disorders like depression. In 2015, 12.5 percent of teens in the U.S. had at least one episode of major depression. This included 19.5 percent of girls and only 5.8 percent of boys. Untreated depression can be a serious risk factor for suicide, but it can be hard for parents to know the difference between typical teen moodiness and depression. This is why it is so important for parents and others to be educated and aware.
Another serious mental health issue for young people is related to body image and weight. Any teen may be vulnerable to eating disorders, but young girls are especially at risk. According to research, nearly three percent of teens will struggle with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, or another eating disorder, but most will not get treatment. Recognizing and treating these conditions is important to help young people learn to manage weight, body image, eating, and to avoid ongoing health problems like malnutrition.
Sexual Health and Pregnancy
With puberty comes sexual maturity and that means that teens need to know about sexual and reproductive health. Teens may become sexually active and this puts them at risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. Young people may also be at risk for being victims of sexual violence, which can have consequences for both physical and mental health.
Young people, even before they become teens, can be protected from HPV, the human papilloma virus, which causes sexually transmitted diseases. HPV does not always cause symptoms, so a person may transmit it without ever realizing they were infected. HPV infections can also eventually lead to cervical cancer in women. A vaccine that protects against the virus could prevent many teens from contracting the disease, but many parents resist the idea because they assume it means they are encouraging their children to be sexually active.
Teenage pregnancy has actually declined in recent years and is at an all-time low. The rate is 24.2 live births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19. The rate of pregnancy and births in teens is lower than ever, but it is still higher in the U.S. than in other western and industrialized nations. Teenage pregnancy can have lasting consequences for teens, especially the young women, including dropping out of high school, and physical and mental health problems.
Teens may abuse substances for a variety of reasons, but the consequences are the same. Teens may abuse alcohol, cigarettes, prescription drugs, or illegal drugs. Any of these can lead to addiction and cause lasting consequences, including addiction, mental health issues, and physical health complications. Abuse of substances is also likely to lead to academic problems, social problems, legal problems, and even incarceration.
Other than marijuana, the use of illegal substances by teens has been declining for several years. Drinking and cigarette use are also declining among teens. The bad news, though, is that the rate of teens misusing prescription opioid painkillers is still going up. There is a misperception that prescription drugs are less dangerous than illegal drugs. These narcotics are harmful and can lead to addiction and even overdose deaths, which are on the rise for people of all ages, including teens.
Obesity, Heart Disease, and Diabetes
Obesity and related health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease, used to be primarily a concern for older Americans, but the health demographics are changing. The obesity rate is going up among young people and is now at over 20 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 19. Because of this, type 2 diabetes is also on the rise among teens. Risk factors for this chronic illness include obesity, but also inactivity and poor diet. Type 2 diabetes can lead to lifelong health complications, but it can also be controlled with lifestyle changes.
Being obese can also lead to heart disease, a growing problem for teens. Teens that are overweight or obese are also at an increased risk for heart disease when they are older. Being overweight or obese can also have other consequences. These teens are more likely to be victims of bullying and they are at risk for developing emotional issues and negative feelings associated with body image and self-esteem.
Healthy Habits for Teens
Teens are at risk for a number of health issues, but they can also be very healthy. Healthy lifestyle habits and preventative measures can help teens avoid health problems, both while they are young and later in life. Making healthy choices habits now will help them to learn to live healthier lives in the future. Parents have a big role to play in helping teens learn to make these positive choices.
Two of the most important things teens can do are to get active and eat well. Regular physical activity and a healthy diet both will help teens prevent illness and later disease. Teens also need to learn good mental health habits, like talking to someone trusted about negative feelings, seeking out care when needed, socializing in positive ways with peers and others, and getting involved in school or other community groups.
Like people of any age group, when teens are sick and treated with medications, they may be at risk for the complications and side effects. One class of drugs that is of particular concern for teens is antidepressants. It is not unusual for teens to struggle with depression, but antidepressants like Celexa, Paxil, and others carry black box warnings stating that they can cause young people to have suicidal thoughts.
Risperdal, an antipsychotic that may be used in teens to treat certain mental health conditions, is known to cause gynecomastia, or breast growth in some boys. Johnson & Johnson, the maker of the drug has been sued over this fact and that they marketed the drug for off-label uses that put boys at risk. Now that more teens are developing type 2 diabetes they may be at risk for the side effects of drugs used to treat the condition. Drugs like Januvia and Invokana may cause serious illnesses like pancreatitis or even pancreatic cancer.
Teen health is varied and complicated. Young people in this age group are going through serious changes that involve their physical bodies, their moods, their emotions, and their behaviors. In addition to these changes, teens are at risk for a number of potentially serious and life-changing health problems. From obesity and heart disease to depression, suicide, and substance abuse, teens have unique health needs. They need to be educated about their health, preventative measures, healthy lifestyle habits, and making smart choices. Parents of teens should also be educated about health issues so they can teach and guide their children and help them make better health choices.