10 May 2016

[Summary] Our future: a Lancet commission on adolescent health and wellbeing

Decades of neglect and chronic underinvestment have had serious detrimental effects on the health and wellbeing of adolescents aged 10–24 years, according to a major new Lancet Commission on adolescent health and wellbeing. Two-thirds of young people are growing up in countries where preventable and treatable health problems like HIV/AIDS, early pregnancy, unsafe sex, depression, injury, and violence remain a daily threat to their health, wellbeing, and life chances.  Evidence shows that behaviours that start in adolescence can determine health and wellbeing for a lifetime. Adolescents today also face new challenges, including rising levels of obesity and mental health disorders.

The Commission’s findings support a call for major new investment in the largest generation of adolescents in the world’s history that will yield a triple dividend of benefits—today, into adulthood, and for the next generation.

“Young people are the world’s greatest untapped resource,” says UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon writing in a linked Comment. “Adolescents can be key driving forces in building a future of dignity for all. If we can make a positive difference in the lives of 10-year-old girls and boys today, and expand their opportunities and capabilities over the next 15 years, we can ensure the success of the SDGs. For me, the acronym “SDG” also stands for “Sustainable Development Generation”, and sustainability means engaging future generations today.”

Adolescents aged 10–24 years represent over a quarter of the population (1.8 billion), 89% of whom live in developing countries. Their number is set to rise to about 2 billion by 2032. Adolescence is a critical time of formative growth and brain development second only to infancy. “Puberty triggers a cascading process of brain development and emotional change that continues through to the mid-20s. It brings a different and more intense engagement with the world beyond an adolescent’s immediate family. These processes shape an individual’s identity and the capabilities he/she takes forward into later life. It profoundly shapes health and wellbeing across the life-course,” explains the Commission’s lead author Professor George Patton, University of Melbourne, Australia.

Most health problems and lifestyle risk factors for disease in later life also emerge during these years, e.g. mental health disorders, obesity, smoking and unsafe sex. But because adolescence is generally thought to be the healthiest time of life, young people have attracted little interest and too few resources. Indeed, adolescents aged 10–24 years have the poorest health-care coverage of any age group.

The Commission authors make several recommendations to improve prospects for adolescent health and wellbeing echoing those of the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s, and Adolescents’ Health (2016-2030) launched along the Sustainable Development Goals in September w2015—leading with the urgent need to expand access to free secondary education; get serious about the laws that empower and protect adolescents such as guaranteeing 18 years as the minimum age for marriage; and continue gathering better evidence for action particularly around mental health and violence.

Other recommendations include collecting and reporting on a minimum set of priority indicators for adolescent health reflecting the burden of disease and risk factors, and for robust, transparent governance and accountability for adolescent health.

Melinda Gates from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation adds, “My children’s generation is better equipped to expand the limits of human possibility than any that has gone before. But while responsibility for their health and wellbeing lies with everyone, accountability currently rests with no one. Bill and I are personally committed to advancing the adolescent health agenda through the work of our foundation, in partnership with governments and the international community. For too long adolescents have been the forgotten community of the health and development agenda. We cannot afford to neglect them any longer.”

The Commission finds that some of the most effective actions to improve adolescent health and wellbeing lie in sectors beyond health services. “The single best investment we can make is guaranteeing access to free, quality secondary education,” explains Professor Patton. “Every year of education beyond age 12 is associated with fewer births for adolescent girls and fewer adolescent deaths for boys and girls. A healthy, educated workforce has the potential to shape a country’s economic prospects.”

It is crucial to involve young people in transforming their wellbeing, personal development, and health, say the authors. Digital media and new technologies offer remarkable opportunities to engage and empower young people to drive change. There is also a pressing need to ensure that all young people have opportunities and access to universal health coverage regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, and marital, and socioeconomic status, particularly the marginalised.


Background about the Commission, including full list of Commissioners available at: http://thelancetyouth.com/.

Details about the launch event at http://thelancetyouth.com/2016/04/symposium-launch/

For interviews with Commission author Professor George Patton, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia, please contact Guillermo Meneses  T) 00 1 202 445 1570 E) Guillermo.Meneses@gmmb.com

To download an embargoed copy of the Commission, GBD paper and all linked Comments, see: http://press.thelancet.com/Adolescenthealth.pdf

For Commission appendix, see: http://press.thelancet.com/AdolescentCOMappx.pdf

For GBD appendix, see: http://press.thelancet.com/AdolescentGBDappx.pdf


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