Publication date: 
May 24, 2016

The health and well-being of the planet’s largest generation of adolescents will shape both the future of the world’s health and the achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to health, nutrition, education, gender equality, and food security. The SDGs build upon the success of the eight anti-poverty targets of the Millennium Development Goals, laying out a 15-year global effort to address the root causes of poverty. With the SDGs comes a renewed and expanded focus on adolescent health and well-being.

On May 10, the Lancet launched Our future: A Lancet Commission on adolescent health and wellbeing in London. The report was published alongside a paper on young people’s health by IHME Professor of Global Health Ali Mokdad and colleagues [1].

Armed with Global Burden of Disease (GBD) data on adolescents, the Commission of adolescent health experts, including adolescent leaders themselves, examined the diversity and magnitude of threats to young people’s health and considered how to actualize the recommendations of the Commission. Head Commissioner Professor George Patton, of the University of Melbourne, stressed the magnitude and urgency of the well-being of the world’s adolescents.

“This is the largest generation the planet will ever see, with many of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia,” noted Professor Patton. “Fifty percent of the world’s adolescents are growing up in high-burden countries where injury and diseases of poverty are a part of their daily lives.”

Dr. Mokdad’s paper, which accompanies the report and examines trends in health for young people aged 10-24 since 1990, shows that while mortality among adolescents has fallen, the rate of adolescent mortality decline is far exceeded by that of younger children. In terms of deaths, HIV/AIDS, road traffic accidents, and drowning claimed the greatest number of lives among 10 to 14 year olds in 2013 (Figure 1). Diarrheal and intestinal diseases, lower respiratory infections, and malaria accounted for an additional 21% of all deaths.

Figure 1. Top causes of premature death and disability by age group [2]

In 2013, depression claimed the largest amount of good health globally, affecting 10% of all 10 to 24 year olds. The rising burden of skin diseases like acne and dermatitis, and musculoskeletal disorders like low back pain follow, together accounting for nearly 20% of disease burden.

GBD 2013 data also illuminate preventable causes of death and disability among adolescents, also known as risk factors. The fastest growing risk factor for ill health in people ages 10 to 24 is unsafe sex. The leading risk factors for ill health among youth ages 20 to 24 is alcohol, which claimed 7% of disease burden in this age group (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Leading risk factors for premature death and disability by age group [3]

On these findings, Dr. Mokdad says “Our data show a clear need for renewed efforts to improve health and reduce the burden of disease in young people. Continued inaction will have serious ramifications for the health of this generation and the next.”

This Commission Report is only the beginning of continued efforts to monitor and improve adolescent health. The Commission considered how to proceed at the country level, discussed the role of intersectroral action, including secondary school education, and addressed the role of youth engagement and empowerment.

Most relevant to IHME’s role as a source of data for ongoing monitoring, the Commission discussed accountability in the ongoing monitoring of adolescent health and in taking actions to achieve the SDGs for this age group. “As part of the report, there are indicators that need to be better monitored for adolescents,” Dr. Mokdad said. “IHME can help accomplish this.”

In closing, at the Commission Report’s launch, Sabine Kleinert, Senior Executive Editor of the Lancet crystallized the global health community’s renewed attention on adolescent health. “The Lancet’s very first global health series was on child health…and we published that in 2003,” said Dr. Kleinert. “Those children who survived are now adolescents. We need to follow through.”

[1] Mokdad et al., “Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors for Young People’s Health during 1990–2013.”

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.