Health Issues: Age 12–19

Adolescent health problems are often correlated with low socioeconomic status, poor diet, inadequate health care, risk‐taking activities, personality issues, and a sedentary lifestyle. Yet the teenage years are typically healthy, although major health problems can emerge. Three possible major health problems include eating disorders, depression, and substance abuse.

Eating disorders

Eating disorders involve a preoccupation with food. The most common of these among teenagers is obesity, which is defined as a skin‐fold measurement in the 85th percentile for one's height. Obesity carries with it the potential for social stigma, psychological distress, and chronic health problems. Approximately 15 to 20 percent of adolescents are obese.

A preoccupation with not becoming obese can lead to anorexia nervosa, or self‐starvation. The typical anorexic is a model teenager who is obsessed with food—buying, cooking, and preparing it—but who eats very little herself. She is probably a perfectionist and has a distorted self‐perception of her body, believing herself to be too fat. The anorexic is generally 20 percent under her ideal weight. As many as 1 percent of adolescent girls are anorexic, and 2 to 8 percent of them eventually die from starvation.

Related to anorexia is bulimia nervosa, a disorder that follows a pattern of binge‐purge eating. After eating an enormous amount of food, bulimics vomit, take laxatives, or exercise vigorously to burn off recently consumed calories. Bulimics, like anorexics, are obsessed with food, weight, and body shape. Unlike anorexics, they maintain a relatively normal body weight.

Both anorexia and bulimia are far more common among females than males. They also cross all levels of society. The exact causes of these eating disorders are unknown.


As many as 40 percent of adolescents have periods of depression, a type of mood disorder characterized by feelings of low self‐esteem and worthlessness, loss of interest in life activities, and changes in eating and sleeping patterns. Adolescent depression is often due to hormonal changes, life challenges, and/or concerns about appearance. More teenage females than males suffer from depression.

A real and tragic consequence of teenage depression is suicide. As many as 13 percent of adolescents report having attempted suicide at least once. Risk factors include feelings of hopelessness, suicidal preoccupation, a previous suicide attempt, having a specific plan to carry out the suicide, having access to firearms or sleeping pills, and stressful life events. As with adults, more teenage females attempt suicide, but more teenage males actually die from their attempts. Females use less violent methods (such as taking pills) than males, who tend to use more extreme and irreversible methods (such as shooting themselves).

Substance abuse

Some adolescents abuse substances to escape the pains of growing up, to cope with daily stresses, or to befriend peers who are part of a particular crowd. As alluring symbols of adulthood, alcohol and tobacco/nicotine are the easily available drugs of choice for adolescents. Alcohol is a depressant that acts to lower inhibitions while inducing a pleasant state of relaxation. Nicotine is a stimulant that allegedly produces a pleasant state of arousal. Marijuana, which contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is the most widely used illicit substance in the United States. It produces a mild altered state of consciousness.

Drug use among teenagers is less common today than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, although many young people still smoke, drink, and use illegal drugs. In a 1989 study, 35 percent of high school seniors reported having had at least five drinks in a row at least once in the previous two weeks. Also, 24 percent of high school seniors reported occasionally using marijuana.