Black and Latino fifth-graders are much more likely than whites to witness gun violence, be obese and ride in a car without a seatbelt. These kinds of health gaps have gotten plenty of attention among teens, but attempts to fix them need to begin much earlier – especially in schools.
That’s the message Boston Children’s Hospital researchers are trying to get out on the heels of an extensive look at health disparities among elementary school children in various regions across the U.S. They also note that health gaps narrowed across all races when children had the advantages of educated parents with higher income, or attended certain kinds of schools.
In interviews with 5,000 children ages 10 and 11 and their parents, researchers asked about several health-related measures. Gaps they found included:
• Black children were four times more likely and Latino children and two times more likely than whites to have seen someone threatened or injured with a gun.
• Black fifth-graders were more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol than Latino and white fifth-graders.
• Obesity rates were nearly twice and high among Latino and black children as among white children, and these children reported less vigorous exercise than white children did.
• Black and Latino children were less likely than white children to wear a seatbelt or bike helmet.
The interviews were conducted between 2004 and 2006 among families living in and near Birmingham, AL; Houston, TX; and Los Angeles, CA. Because the behaviors detailed can have serious long-term impact on health (patterns of seatbelt use and violence, for instance, are known to persist into adulthood), the authors believe intervention efforts should begin before the teen years.
“We should be thinking about these issues when children are young enough to prevent bad outcomes before they occur,” says lead author Mark A. Schuster, M.D., Chief of General Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital. And because schools seemed to have a major impact on narrowing health gaps, they should be a key focus. “Is it a visionary principal, committed teachers, a strong commitment to health education, an engaged PTA?” asks Schuster. “We need to learn more.”
The study appears in the Aug. 23 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.