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Robin Marantz Henig
Robin Marantz Henig

Young Americans Are Sicker Than Ever

The Institute of Medicine has sobering news about the health of Millennials

A sobering article on the Atlantic web site suggests that this generation of young people is encountering more chronic illnesses, at younger ages, than at any time in recent history. Case in point is the author herself, Leah Sottile, whose 33-year-old husband has been suffering for the past three years with ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation and sometimes debilitating pain.

Here's how Sottile describes their state of mind—and, she says, that of many of her fellow Millennials:

I thought this would be the time when we’d be preparing for the rest of our lives: earning money, going on fun vacations, having families, building our careers. And we are, but at the same time, we’re doing it while we’re trying to manage pain symptoms, chase down prescriptions, and secure stable health insurance. When I was in college, I remember being prepared to survive in the workforce, but I don’t remember a class that told me how to do that if half of your household is in so much pain on some days that they can’t get to work. I’m barely over 30. I thought I had so much more time before I had to think about this stuff.

She mentions a recent Senate hearing in which findings from an Institute of Medicine report were discussed. "For many years," the IOM investigators wrote, "Americans have been dying at younger ages than people in almost all other high income countries.” Especially disturbing and perplexing—and, let's face, the reason why journalists like Sottile and me are finding this report particularly newsworthy—is that this increase in morbidity and mortality among the young holds true even for Millennials who are college-educated and upper-class.

When I sit down and think about it, I realize that a surprising number of my daughters' friends have chronic illnesses in their 20s and 30s. One just had a liver transplant; another has been suffering for years from Merniere's disease or maybe chronic Lyme. This one has inflammatory bowel disease, that one just had a hysterectomy. Illness during youth is nothing new, of course; when I was in my 30s, I too had friends with MS, breast cancer, chronic hepatitis, progressive hearing loss. But when an IOM report tells you that your impression of an increase in these sad stories is actually more than mere anecdotes but an actual statistical trend, you begin to wonder what's going on.

Sottile offers a couple of possible explanations: people with weakened immune systems living to young adulthood because of childhood immunization; epigenetic changes caused by poor diet or environmental toxins passed down from Millennials' parents and grandparents; too little exercise. She quotes Steven Woolf, director of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, who says that we have known for a long time what needs to be done to get people to live healthier lives, but resistance to a "nanny state" has kept most jurisdictions from doing anything about it.

Which makes me wonder whether any of this is different in New York City, which under Mayor Bloomberg has imposed a series of nanny-ish public health initiatives regarding cigarettes, sugary drinks, and trans fats. Will 20- and 30-something New Yorkers fare better than their peers elsewhere in the US in terms of chronic illness and early mortality?

About the Author
Robin Marantz Henig

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and the co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?

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