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Death and Disability Rates Jump Dramatically During the Teen Years—Here’s Why


Too often people think stereotypically about the period of adolescence as a time of vulnerability, risks, and problems. You may even be guilty of this. How often have you participated in or overheard conversations between parents that sound something like “my daughter is headed to middle school next year” and the response is “yikes, good luck!”?

But the reality is that adolescence is the healthiest period of the lifespan, explains Professor Ronald Dahl, MD, a pediatrician and developmental scientist, on the latest episode of our Critical Window podcast. “Almost everything you can measure—if you go from elementary school across adolescence into early adulthood—gets better,” says Dahl. “Strength, speed, reaction time, reasoning abilities, cognitive skills, immune function, resistance to cold, heat, hunger, dehydration, and most types of injuries.”

This sounds like good news, but we also know that “the overall death and disability rates jump 200 to 300 percent between elementary school and early adulthood.” Dahl explains that those jumps don’t come from “mysterious medical illnesses.” Instead, such increases result from teens still learning how to control behavior and regulate emotion. Therefore, we see “increasing rates of accident, suicide, homicide, depression, alcohol and substance use, violence, reckless behaviors, eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, health problems related to risky behaviors broadly, [and] worsening obesity.”

Dahl calls this the “health paradox of adolescence.”

In this episode of Critical Window, Dahl breaks down stereotypes and popular assumptions about adolescent health and focuses on the opportunities to support positive development and shape the future of young people. 

Here are some takeaways:

Adolescent brains do what they are supposed to do.  

“Adolescent brains are very well adapted to the tasks and challenges of adolescence,” says Dahl. “They’re focusing and prioritizing learning about their complex social world and their place in it as an individual.”

Dahl gives an example of how understanding this shift in priorities can shape learning environments. “If it’s a way to increase [their] social world, adolescents will master the learning very rapidly. If they’re being told that they need to learn something because it’s going to help them sometime in the future, then their brains may not look like they work very well. But it’s not because something’s wrong with their brain.”

Adolescents are passionate.

“We’re doing a disservice to the brain if we think that it’s all about rational thought,” says Dahl. The adolescent brain is figuring out what matters and what doesn’t matter and is establishing heartfelt goals and priorities that can lead to positive impact, especially when given proper support. “Feelings can be smart, wise feelings,” says Dahl. “We can have passions for good causes and purposes that guide our value systems, and shaping these systems are as important as shaping the ability for the thinking brain to suppress emotions.”

Adolescents aren’t “just being impulsive.”

Increasingly, adolescents seek sensation, something that Dahl describes as “having an appetite for, an inclination for excitement, arousal, novelty, bursts of unusual experiences and feelings.” This isn’t “just being impulsive.” This is what drives kids to learn and explore. “A huge number of kids are bored more than 50 percent of the time when they’re peeking in their sensation-seeking,” explains Dahl. “Sitting in a desk being told what is important often doesn’t tap into biological shifts.”

To learn more from Dahl, listen to full episode of Critical Window below.

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Critical Window is a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and parents. Subscribe to Critical Window on Apple MusicStitcher, or wherever you find podcasts.