Get Young People Involved to Reduce Chronic Disease

February 6, 2015

A youth advisory committee for the Department of Health and Human Services has the potential to reduce the costs of chronic disease for generations to come.

In the United States, chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity are among the most common, costly, and preventable of health problems. Half of all adults have one or more chronic health conditions, and seven out of the top ten causes of death in 2010 were chronic. As chronic disease is projected to increase to 171 million patients by 2030, the $2 trillion in healthcare spending in this arena is also projected to skyrocket. The CDC says that eliminating three risk factors (poor diet, inactivity, and smoking) would prevent 80 percent of heart disease and stroke, 80 percent of type II diabetes, and 40 percent of cancer. Recent research by University of Chicago Nobel laureate economist James Heckman shows that high-quality childhood development programs with health care and nutritional components can prevent or delay the onset of chronic disease.

The U.S. government has instituted policy and programs targeting lifestyle changes in youth, such as Let’s Move and the Health Hunger-Free Kids Act. The Let’s Move campaign strives to solve childhood obesity through healthier foods and more physical activity; the Health Hunger-Free Kids act let the Department of Agriculture set portions and nutrition standards for school lunches.

These two programs have not had tremendous success. Many schools have complained about the food portions being too small and the food tasting bad, to the extent that many students are refusing to eat these meals and go hungry. Wealthier schools are even backing out of the national program to self-fund food students prefer. When students do not eat the revised federal school lunches, schools also lose money, which may lead to budget cuts in other programs. Meanwhile, a 2012 CDC survey showed that merely one in four U.S. kids aged 12-15 met the criteria for physical activity recommended by Let’s Move.

Although youth are in a powerful position to understand the rationale behind lifestyle decisions of their peers, there is currently very little youth representation in the Department of Health and Human Services. Youth have the potential to help create innovative projects and policy to address these childhood lifestyle issues, but lack the voice to do so.

It would be extremely beneficial for the HHS to create a youth advisory board to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services to increase youth engagement in preventing chronic diseases. In order to guarantee a diverse board, HHS would operate a national competition and a rigorous interview process to select a ten-member advisory board. A staff member from HHS would be designated the task of constructing this board and advising it. This proposal stems from the impact the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO’s youth advisory board has had in areas in which older adults have been unable to serve. The youth board utilized technology and social media to connect over 1,500 youth from 120+ countries in conversation on culture, science, and education.

The proposed HHS youth advisory board would be largely unfunded, as they would implement inexpensive projects. They would engage youth with policy and programs centered on improving lifestyles harmful to long-term health. The first project could be a social media campaign (Twitter chats, Google Hangouts, Facebook groups) to spread awareness and to promote conversation on the importance of exercise, nutrition, and banning tobacco in order to prevent chronic disease. After hearing conversations from youth across the country, the board could then work with the HHS to implement specific programming at their local schools. This could include giving schools recommendations on adding healthier food options or incorporating more nutrition education into classes.

The board could also spend time simplifying WHO, CDC, and World Bank reports on health and chronic disease to make them directly pertinent to youth. The committee could also host a nation-wide competition (in conjunction with private and public partners) to encourage youth to submit innovative ways to improve health practices. Similar competitions have been hosted by the U.S. Federation of UNESCO Clubs to engage hundreds of youth around the world on pressing social issues.

There are certainly a few potential obstacles that could hinder the creation of an HHS youth advisory board. One possible concern is that youth do not have the experience or capability to contribute to HHS projects on a national scale. This can be addressed by looking at the impact that many other youth advisory committees have had. When Dell wanted to enhance technological environments in the classroom, they called upon a youth advisory board to launch a national competition to help achieve the goal. The U.S. National Commission for UNESCO wanted more youth engagement in culture, science, and education; they called upon 10 young people to spearhead a global project connecting teens to UNESCO’s ideals.

A second concern would likely be that the youth advisory board requires a member of the HHS to advise them. This will require a significant time and commitment for that staff member during the initial formation of the group, but afterwards the advisory role would be much lighter. The current advisor to the UNESCO board sits in on one conference call every 2-3 months and is copied on emails to keep up with the board’s projects. Of course, the advisor would have to approve new appointments to the board every year as older members transition out of the board. Asking for time from a staff member is justified because the advisory board has the potential to increase information dissemination and penetration into an increasingly important youth audience.

A last concern would be how to fund the committee. Most of the projects and initiatives can come at a low cost since spreading awareness and information dissemination can largely be done over social media. In the case that money is needed to execute a program in a school, the federal government should allocate funds to such ideas to promote youth innovation and awareness in these healthcare issues.

It is important for the department of HHS to listen to such a proposal asking for an increased youth presence. Youth represent 14 percent of the total U.S. population and have a very large stake in total healthcare costs and outcomes nationwide. If youth become motivated to live healthy lifestyles, the cost savings over their lifetimes will be incredible.