Friday, December 05, 2008

Young Adults, Healthcare and the Economy

A recent study by Medco Health Solutions reveals that the current economic downturn and increasing healthcare costs are having a severe effect on young adults.

With an increasing number of young adults in their 20s and 30s living with chronic health conditions, health insurance and prescription drug coverage are no longer just issues for middle-aged and older adults. The survey further revealed that young adults are considerably less savvy when it comes to finding ways to save money on healthcare.

Other recent reports show that the prevalance of mental illness among young adults is significantly high, but only a small percentage ever actually seek treatment. With potentially 50% of young college-age adults meeting criteria for substance abuse disorders, personality disorders or other conditions, it is disconcerting that less than 25% are under active medical care.

If the lack of health insurance, the prohibitive costs of prescription medications, or exponentially increasing college tuition is keeping young adults from seeking medical or psychiatric treatment at a very vulnerable time of development and maturation, important outreach and motivational education needs to be set in motion in order to counterbalance such a trend. Whereas older adults might make healthcare expenses more of a personal economic priority in times of fiscal stress, perhaps young adults are less likely to eschew social outings, travel, and other activities in order to save money to cover their healthcare costs. This trend is worrisome since untended health maintenance issues early in adulthood can often come back to haunt the unsuspecting person in middle age.

I am not at all suggesting that young adults are categorically frivolous or laissez-faire about their health, but studies do clearly suggest that they are less likely to understand how to manipulate the economic system to their personal advantage vis-a-vis healthcare expenses. Additionally, having once been a young adult myself, health is generally not as great a priority when one is twenty-something as when one crosses the threshold into middle-age and the first half of one's life comes to a resounding close.

Universal healthcare and free higher education would most likely go a long way towards easing the economic strain on today's young adults, but I would be interested to see a study comparing the healthcare-seeking habits of European young adults (who already have free medical care and higher education) and their American counterparts. It would be revealing to ascertain if it is indeed the cost of healthcare that prevents young adults from seeking care, or if it is more of a developmental issue which is part and parcel of the maturation process.

While considering the underlying causes of the phenomena revealed by the studies mentioned above, it is important to consider what social and economic interventions might increase access to medical care for this important population, as well as what forms of education and outreach might prove to be positively motivational to that desired end. Increased access to affordable healthcare is certainly a very good first step, and while students attending college are required by law to have health insurance, young adults who choose to not go to college---or who simply cannot afford it---are left with few economically viable options once they can no longer be covered under their parents' policies.

Young adults are our future, and it is in our best collective interest to make sure that they receive the necessary preventive healthcare that can detect chronic disease---or even the potential for such disease---long before any lasting damage is done. Healthcare should be affordable, accessible, and understandable for our young adults, and in these hard economic times, too many young people may see healthcare as a luxury that they simply cannot afford. I hope that the new administration in Washington will decrease the costs of both healthcare and higher education, ease the burden on American young adults, and simultaneously educate this population about the crucial importance of detecting chronic illness before it starts to take its toll.

As the father of a young man in his twenties, I have a vested interest in his stellar generation reaching their productive middle-age with good health, economic security, and the means to live a long, happy, healthy and satisfying life.

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