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Young Americans' Well-Being a Mixed Bag

Infant mortality at record lows, but overweight a worrisome problem, report finds

FRIDAY, July 14, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The U.S. infant mortality rate equals the lowest level ever recorded, but the proportion of low birth-weight newborns is up.

And while the number of children who smoke continues to decline, far too many kids are far too heavy, leaving them vulnerable to a host of diseases.

Those are just four highlights from the federal government's latest annual report card on the health and well-being of America's children, reflecting encouraging gains and disappointing setbacks.

"The report this year, as in previous years, contains a mix of negative and positive trends," said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, describing the study released Friday.

The report, titled American's Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2006, monitors such factors as health, behavior, pregnancy and birth rates, education, economic security and other measures. It is compiled by the Federal Interagency Forum on Children and Family Statistics.

For instance, infant mortality rates, after increasing the previous year, dropped to the previous record low rate of 6.8 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 2003. Infant mortality rates take into account death rates during the first year of life, Alexander said.

And while the birth rate among teens 15 to 17 years of age fell to 22.1 per every 1,000 women in 2004, down from 22.4 in 2003, it rose among older unmarried teens and women up to age 44 -- from 45 per 1,000 women in 2003 to 46 per 1,000 women in 2004. "The increase in unmarried women is a concern, but it is tempered by the fact that the birth rate to teens has dropped considerably," Alexander said.

Meanwhile, the rate of low birth-weight babies increased from 7.9 percent in 2003 to 8.1 percent in 2004.

The report also found that the number of children exposed to secondhand smoke continues to decline. While 88 percent of children were found to have a breakdown byproduct of nicotine in their bloodstream -- indicating recent exposure to cigarette smoke -- for the period 1988 to 1994, that number fell to 59 percent from 2001 to 2004, said Edward Sondik, director of the National Center for Health Statistics.

Fourteen percent of high school seniors were daily smokers in 2005, down from 16 percent in 2004.

But weight problems continue to plague children and teens.

"The percentage of children 6 to 17 who are overweight has tripled over the past two and a half decades," Sondik said, setting them up to be heavy adults and prone to such illnesses as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. In 2004, the report found, 18 percent of children 6 to 17 were overweight.

Encouraging news was found in educational gains made in math and -- to a lesser extent -- reading, said Valena Plisko, associate commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics. For instance, fourth-graders' average math scores increased from 235 out of 500 in 2003 to 238 in 2005. Fourth-grade reading scores inched up from 218 in 2003 to 219 in 2005. But reading scores for eighth-graders declined slightly from 263 to 262.

Families who read to their children, considered an important tool in fostering reading interest and skills, increased. "In 2005," Plisko said, "60 percent of kids ages 3 to 5 were read to daily by a family member," up from 53 percent in 1993.

"The report sounds like an accurate reflection of what we are aware of," said Dr. Eileen Ouellette, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a retired pediatric neurologist in Newton Center, Mass.

She agreed with a number of suggestions put forward by the study authors, such as encouraging more reading to children. And, she noted, "childhood obesity is the number-one health problem children face in this country today. It's totally preventable but is going to require a societal change. Children not only need to make better food choices, but be presented with better food choices."

More information

To view the report, visit the Forum on Child and Family Statistics.

SOURCES: July 13, 2006, teleconference, America's Children in Brief: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, 2006, Duane Alexander, M.D., director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Eileen Ouellette, M.D., pediatric neurologist, Newton Center, Mass., and president, American Academy of Pediatrics
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