Editor’s note: In this Future View, students discuss health. Next week we’ll ask, “The killing of Tyre Nichols has revived conversations about police reform. What should be reformed? Should we be funding the police more or defunding? Is the public more safe with a strong police force?” Students should click here to submit opinions of fewer than 250 words before Feb. 7. The best responses will be published that night. Click here to submit a video to our Future View
The U.S. spends 17 cents of every dollar on healthcare, yet a third of adults are obese and a fifth experience mental illness. The current generation is the most obese, medicated and mentally ill in history. This is rooted in two broader problems: not enough personal agency and too much instant gratification.
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People have traditionally overcome adversity by taking personal responsibility. They worked within existing institutions and used the limited resources available to them. But the current generation is being robbed of free will. Problems from obesity to drug abuse are framed as societal ills that can only be remedied by transforming major institutions or cultural norms. Type 2 diabetes must be solved through universal healthcare; the opioid epidemic must be tackled by destigmatizing drug use; and ethnic studies classes include body size on the society-blaming intersectionality pyramid.
Meantime, our culture of instant gratification has created a healthcare system that refuses to face root causes. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that 12-year-olds struggling with obesity be given medication, and 13-year-olds can undergo fat-removing surgery. In 2022, there was a 70% increase in refills for serotonin-regulating generic Lexapro. But combating obesity requires a dramatic lifestyle change—a disciplined diet and exercise regime. And most often, increased serotonin alone can’t combat depression. A fulfilling life requires family, friends and purpose.
Our health crisis will not be solved with increases in government spending or price-controlled medicine. Instead, people must reclaim their agency, working every day to improve their lifestyles and achieve their goals.
—Anika Horowitz, University of Wisconsin-Madison, economics
The Mental—Not Physical—Crisis
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Recent polls indicate that the majority of Generation Z is more concerned with eating a diet that is both nutritious and ethically sourced than preceding generations. The percentage of Gen-Zers exercising multiple times a week exceeds that of past generations. All told, today’s students are more concerned about their weight and will likely suffer lower obesity rates than their millennial counterparts. Alcohol trends also point to Gen-Z drinking less than millennials, Boomers and Gen Xers.
Despite positive changes in physical health, today’s students report having the worst mental health among past generations. Many forces are at work, but stunted social interaction is the primary factor and can be attributed to social media, isolation during the pandemic and an increasingly stressful college experience.
While social media and virtual work make fleeting connections more numerous, they have reduced more meaningful interactions with neighbors, co-workers, friends and roommates. Lockdowns accelerated that reduction: Young people living in cities, which experienced harsher lockdowns, are more likely to feel lonely. Academic stress also plays a part. The pressure to perform well in courses and attain prestigious summer internships has monopolized students’ time, robbing them of the social interactions that are essential to robust mental health.
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—Connor Bierbaum, Georgia Institute of Technology, economics
There’s Always a New Hazard
It is impossible to assert that one generation is—on average—sicklier than others. There are too many data, and thus too much subjectivity, to make such a claim. Even as our collective medical knowledge continues to grow, there will always be new hazards to worry about.
Asbestos and lead paint are nearly obsolete. But now we have phthalates and microplastics. Cigarettes with combustible tobacco are disgusting to Gen Z, but electronic vapes full of industrial chemicals are popular among students. Our knowledge of nutrition is greater than ever, yet there is easily accessible fast food with trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup on every street corner. Mental-health upkeep is now less taboo, but social-media use by young people has been directly correlated with mental-health issues.
The fads within your generation affect your behavior and your health. Focus on developing healthy personal habits, apart from the crowd.
—Rafael Arbex-Murut, University of California, Berkeley, information and data science
Too Much Pleasure
Today’s young adults are bombarded with messaging that tells them to satisfy their impulses and to seek pleasure no matter the consequences. Our culture promotes this behavior by telling us that all bodies are beautiful, marijuana use is a personal choice, and degrading apps such as OnlyFans (where users can subscribe to see or sell sexual content) are not only acceptable, but empowering. Consequently, young people consume fast food at the expense of their physical well-being, partake in rampant drug use at the expense of their cognition, and pine after TikTok models at the expense of meaningful relationships.
But we are called to a greater purpose than gratifying our bodily appetites. When we ignore this reality, we find ourselves lacking fulfillment. It should come as no surprise then, that nearly 1 in 10 Americans report experiencing depression. Among teenagers, the numbers are even more troublesome.
To help our youth become healthier, we must stop valuing pleasure above all else.
—Edward Zelikman, University of Connecticut, finance
Rebuilding From the Pandemic
My generation’s health is a smorgasbord of sedentarism, anxiety and excess sugar consumption. These sickly tendencies illustrate a series of bizarre paradoxes and unexpected events. Although less likely to drink or smoke, I have become more reclusive and antisocial. Although drilled with a lifetime of nutritionary facts, I consume more and more salt and sweets.
Covid began my freshman year and its effects still linger through my final undergraduate months. Unlike classes before and after the pandemic, our class lost its university experience almost as soon as it began. Sent home during our freshman year, we were deprived of forming meaningful relationships. When we came back—without those relationships—things weren’t the same.
Students transferred to other schools or simply abandoned higher education. For those who returned, in-person teaching was a slow and painful transition. Long-term diet and mental-health trends suggested that we would encounter significant challenges, and Covid’s impact has exacerbated this picture. We have emerged more sick, unhappy and apathetic than our collegiate predecessors.
—Thomas Mortimer, Loyola University Maryland, political science
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