By Denali Johnson
With summer ending and school starting once again, it’s a perfect time to take a look at the health of adolescents in Colorado. Our state is home to more than 675,000 adolescents, ages 10-19, which is two out of every 15 Coloradans. Adolescence is an important time in life — as children grow older and gain more autonomy, it is essential that they establish healthy eating habits, exercise often and make good lifestyle decisions.
Fortunately, compared to national data, Colorado’s adolescents are generally healthy and making smart choices. According to the 2012 Colorado Health Report Card, our youth tend to live active lifestyles and score well on indicators of mental health and avoiding risky sexual behaviors. Of course, there are exceptions: too many Colorado adolescents still engage in unsafe activities like binge drinking and smoking.
Since Colorado is one of the most active states in the country, it’s not surprising that our adolescents spend more time outdoors than on a couch. While many other states struggle to keep their youth from living a sedentary lifestyle, Colorado ranks third in the U.S. for both minimizing television time and maximizing exercise time. But while our adolescents are out hiking 14ers or playing on a sports team at school, around one in 10 are unprotected by the health insurance coverage they’ll need if they suffer any injuries or illnesses.
In fact, according to the Colorado Health Institute, about 44,000 of our 12- to 17-year-olds are uninsured, which places us between 38th and 42nd (depending on the data source) in the country for our rate of uninsured young people. Given the significant availability of health insurance for children under 18, it is unacceptable to be so far behind.
We know that being uninsured puts an individual at a higher risk of poor health than those with health insurance, and this is true for all ages. Adolescents who do not have insurance coverage are less likely to have a “medical home” and a relationship with a primary care physician who can help prevent chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. They are also more likely to have unmet health needs than other young people who have insurance.
Families with uninsured or under-insured children of all ages have a more difficult time paying bills for health care services and are nearly four times as likely to forgo well-child exams and yearly physicals.
When adolescents aren’t seeing a provider regularly, important indicators about their growth and development might be missed. These are especially pronounced in the areas of mental and behavioral health. Colorado’s adolescents may be in better mental health than those living in other parts of the country, but over one-fifth of our 13- to 17-year-olds are still suffering from long bouts of depressive feelings that are affecting their everyday lives.
This can affect their academic success and lead to substance abuse or self-harm. Furthermore, eating disorders are a major behavioral health issue for adolescents. In Colorado, fewer than 20 percent of our high school students are considered by standard measures to be overweight; however, a 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey Report found that 40 percent were dieting to try to lose weight. These nutritional deficiencies can have serious health consequences later in life.
The fact that so many of Colorado’s youth are uninsured is a problem we have the ability to address today. Over 60 percent of uninsured 12- to 17-year-olds in the state are already eligible for Medicaid or CHP+, but have not been enrolled. These coverage options are important lifelines for families looking to get their children covered and gain access to medical care.
We’re in a great position in Colorado to see success in improving the health of our youth — many of our adolescents are already making healthier choices than their peers in other states — and the resources exist to ensure they can all get the care they need, when they need it. But we can’t stop pushing towards our goals. The finish line is within our view.
Denali Johnson is a project associate at the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved.
Access the infographic at www.ccmu.org/adolescents.