The number of children and youth with chronic health conditions has increased dramatically in the past four decades. Among children receiving Supplemental Security Income, approximately 20 percent have mental retardation, 46 percent have other mental conditions and 34 percent have various physical conditions. Common afflictions include obesity (affecting 18% of children and adolescents), asthma and attention-deficit or hyperactive disorder. For depression and autism, rates of diagnosis have increased, although there is no clear evidence documenting higher prevalence. In this article, the authors examine possible causes for this growth, the widening disparities in health among different populations and the potential implications for public health expenditures.
Some of the suggested causes include poor diet, television and media, and environmental changes. Along with the increase in prevalence of certain health conditions is evidence of growing disparities. For instance, obesity disproportionately affects Hispanic, non-Hispanic black and Native American children. Increasing rates of illnesses in youth imply subsequent higher rates of illnesses during adulthood. The authors contend that major increases in public expenditures for health care and income support will be necessary over the next few decades. The situation calls for increased efforts to understand causation and means of prevention.