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Saturday, 9 June, 2001, 23:09 GMT 00:09 UK
Children 'ignored' by health experts
Understanding teenagers will help get health messages across, say researchers
Understanding teenagers will help get health messages across, say researchers
Children are "ignored" by those designing health advice for them, experts have warned.

They are often not involved, despite a recognition that children respond better to messages they have had a hand in designing, and to those which are targeted directly at them.

The National Heart Forum (NHF), which works to reduce coronary heart disease risk, is spearheading the 'young@heart' project - a bid to ensure children can live without "avoidable heart disease".

It has looked at research already carried out into children and young people's eating, exercising and smoking habits and discovered children's views are a "missing piece of the jigsaw".


We were surprised... to discover how rarely young people are asked to comment on things which are important to them

Alison Giles, National Heart Forum
In a bid to redress the balance, and to improve the way healthy living messages are given to children, the National Heart Forum is holding an expert policy summit to draw up recommendations on the issue later this month.

Experts there will look at how children can be helped to live more healthily, and recommendations will be sent to policy makers.

Alison Giles of the NHF said: "We commissioned a team to look for key research which had sought the knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and practices of children and young people and which might provide answers.

"We were surprised at the complete lack of information available and to discover how rarely young people are asked to comment on things which are important to them."

She said young people should be involved "in decisions about issues which affect their lives and in which they are deeply interested".

Involvement

The NHF has examined research into children's smoking, diet, exercise and social and family surroundings to see how their habits dictate their future heart health.

In its report 'Children's Voices', the NHF warns that children and young people should not be seen as a homogenous group in terms of family circumstances, educational opportunities, class and ethnicity as well as age and sex.

Smoking is one of the areas to be examined
Smoking is one of the areas to be examined
Smoking is linked to one-in-seven deaths from heart disease, and preventing children starting is a key measure in improving adult health, the NHF says.

Alison Giles said: "It is crucial that efforts to prevent the uptake of smoking are started in children as young as four to eight."

Amanda Sandford of Action on Smoking and Health said: "Clearly if we can dissuade children from smoking, that will dramatically reduce their chances of getting heart disease in later life.

"However, getting adults (especially parents) to quit is a key factor in improving the hearts of children."

Nicky Cooper, head of education at the British Heart Foundation, said: "It won't work simply telling a child "this is good for you".

"You have to approach it in a way that actually makes them think something is fun, and links in to what they are interested in - their image and looking cool."

She said it was difficult to get the message across that habits developed in childhood and young adulthood could affect their health later on in life, but said the key was to stress that harm is done gradually, over time.


One of the key elements of changing behaviour is to involve young people in the dialogue about what needs to happen

Prof Richard Parish
HDA chief executive

Professor Richard Parish, chief executive of the Health Development Agency, which issues public health advice, said: "It's now clear from the evidence that diet and exercise in childhood make a real difference to your heart disease risk as an adult.

"We know for instance that children should eat at least eat five portions of fruit and veg a day and that they need to get reasonable levels of exercise.

"How to get children to do what is good for them is a bigger challenge, particularly when there are so many vested interests queuing up to get them to sit in front of TV all day eating fatty snacks.

"One of the key elements of changing behaviour is to involve young people in the dialogue about what needs to happen.

"Genuinely listening to them and acting on what they think needs to be done is one of the most effective strategies for getting change."

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See also:

19 Apr 01 | Health
'Wards for teenagers' call
17 Apr 00 | Health
Teenagers 'don't trust their GP'
11 Jun 00 | Health
Teenagers are not 'monsters'
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