Today's children unhealthier than in 1960s

Today's kids aren't the lean, mean machines they were in the 1960s. Donna Fleming looks at the reasons why

You would think that with the wonders of modern medicine and all that we know about health these days, this generation's kids would be healthier than ever.
But in fact, research shows children today are actually less healthy than their parents and grandparents, and may end up having shorter lives.
A British study looked into the health of 11-year-olds today, compared to those who were the same age 50 years ago, and ended up with some rather interesting findings.
  • 1961: 132cm
  • 2011: 140cm
Children's heights have increased between 1cm and 3cm every decade in the last 50 years, so they're now between 5cm and 15cm taller.
The main reason, say scientists, is improved nutrition in the 21st century, especially during pregnancy. A decline in the number of women who smoke while pregnant could also play a part, as smoking can stunt a baby's growth.
But being taller doesn't mean being healthier - in fact it can leave some kids with back pain, because it can put extra pressure on the spine.
  • 1961: Boys 36kg, Girls 39kg
  • 2011: Boys 40kg, Girls 44kg
our kids weigh more than ever, and while being generally taller means they carry extra muscle, that's not the only reason.
They weigh more because although they may not actually be eating more than their ancestors, their diets typically contain more fat and sugar. Poor food choices combined with inactivity can lead to obesity, which may set kids up for health problems later in life, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Puberty age
  • 1961: Boys 14 ½, Girls 12 ½
  • 2011: Boys 13 ½, Girls 11
The age of puberty stayed the same from the 1940s to the 1980s, and then it began to drop among children born in the late 1980s and 1990s, particularly girls.
According to a British report, increased body weight may be to blame, while Danish researchers suggest an unhealthy lifestyle or exposure to chemicals in food may play a part.
Meanwhile, international studies estimate that one in every six children in western countries begin to go through puberty before they turn 10.
The age when puberty begins may affect children later in life. Early puberty is one of the risk factors for breast cancer for women, while boys who mature at an early age are more likely to be aggressive, according to US research.
  • 1961: Boys, 40 sit-ups in 30 seconds, Girls 26
  • 2011: Boys, 20 sit-ups in 30 seconds, Girls 18
Various tests to assess fitness and strength show children's fitness levels have dropped steadily since the 1960s.
Not only can they do fewer sit-ups in the same time, but they're less able to do things like hang from bars in a gym.
Doctors put this down to the fact that today's kids spend more time in front of a TV or computer screen rather than climbing trees and swinging from ropes.
Lack of fitness is a worry, because it increases kids' risk of illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and bone conditions when they get older.
Life expectancy
  • 1961: Boys 68, Girls 73
  • 2011: Boys 76, Girls 81
The good news is that at the moment, today's 11-year-olds are expected to live longer than they would have 50 years ago. It's thought that that's partly due to advances in medical treatments that can keep people alive for longer.
But those ages could start to decrease if our kids get fatter. Research published in the New England Journal of oedicine found obesity will cut the average life expectancy of US children by between two and five years in the coming decades - and things aren't likely to be much different for our children in New Zealand.

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