Is Your Child as Healthy as You Were at His Age?

A new survey reveals that most parents are discouraged by the state of kids' health, but are kids today really sicker than in the past?
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Sometimes when I take my son to the pediatrician, I'm filled with a rush of gratitude that I'm a mother in the year 2016—not 1986, when I was two and the AIDS crisis was at its height, and not 1948, when my father was two and polio ran rampant. But this sentiment may put me in a minority.

In a poll released earlier this week, University of Michigan researchers asked a nationally representative sample of 2,700 adults: Compared with the time when you were growing up, how would you describe the physical health of children under 18? Only 29 percent said children were faring better today; 42 percent said they are doing worse. The stats on emotional and mental health revealed even more pessimism. Over half of adults of all ages said that children's mental/emotional health is worse today than when they were kids. Only 16 percent said it was better.

As the senior health editor at Parents magazine, I'm well aware that the state of children's health is far from rosy. I know that many serious health issues—obesity, asthma, and autism, among them—are more common today than they have been before. I know that socioeconomic status has an unjust impact on children's health. And I know that access to technology poses new health challenges we can't yet fully understand. We need to do much more to improve the health and safety of our children.

But even with all that in mind, I still believe that thanks to incredible advances in cancer and other chronic illnesses, as well decreased stigma surrounding special needs and mental health problems, my son's generation has a health edge. Which got me wondering: Why am I in a minority?

One theory I've been kicking around is that the interventions, treatments, and screenings so rapidly improving children's health have had an unintended side effect: They are making more children appear sick even as they grow healthier.

Think about it: Many conditions that once went unacknowledged (like learning disabilities and developmental delays) are now found with greater frequency, resulting in more children receiving diagnoses—something many adults perceive as weakness. We also finally have some awareness of teen suicide, and more children are opening up about their depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, rather than perceiving these children as brave and strong, many adults see them as more emotionally fragile than children were in the past. On top of all that, news organizations today focus their health coverage almost entirely on tragedies and crises, making our negative perceptions multiply rapidly.

This trend isn't fair to kids or to parents. Who wants to raise their child in a world where scientific accomplishments are largely ignored and doomsday headlines dominate the zeitgeist? After all, as the survey showed, about two-thirds of adults polled believe children currently endure more stress than in the past. And stress comes from all sorts of places, including parents fretting over kids who are (arguably) healthier than ever. Let's keep fighting for our kids—but let's also try to remember all the good that's happening.

Julia Edelstein is the senior health editor at Parents magazine.

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