Teens Who Expect to Die Young Engage in Riskier Behavior

Twenty-five percent of African-American teens believe they have a 50-50 chance of living to see 35.

Posted: 08/06/2012 03:15 PM EDT
Filed Under Health News

Does believing that you will die young place you at higher risk of it actually happening?


Perhaps, says a new study.


Researchers found that one in seven participants in grades 7 to 12 reported perceiving a 50-50 chance or less of surviving to age 35 in their initial interview. And as the years went by, those who continued to believe that they would die young were more likely to engage in risky behavior such as abusing drugs, binge drinking and attempting suicide. Even worse, the team found that buying into this belief doubled and even tripled a person’s chance of dying prematurely compared to those who believed that they would definitely reach their mid-30s.


Researchers from Northeastern University in Boston and University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill interviewed more than 20,000 young people in grades 7–12 in 1994–1995 from around the country, according to MedPage Today. They then conducted a series of follow-up interviews over the years — 1996, 2001–2002 and 2008 — in hopes of finding out if perception can foreshadow actual mortality outcomes. The researchers referred to this as Perceived Survival Expectation (PSE).


Quynh Nguyen, of Northeastern University and lead researcher, admitted that there are other complicated factors that may explain why teens have such a negative view on their mortality. Twenty-five percent of African-American adolescents reported perceiving a 50-50 or less chance of living to age 35 compared to only 10 percent of white, non-Hispanic adolescents. And during the initial phase of the study, close to a quarter of youth with parents receiving public assistance reported low PSE compared to 13 percent of youth whose parents did not receive public assistance.


Nguyen told BET.com, “Low survival expectations also strongly correlated with family socioeconomic status, neighborhood poverty, personal violence involvement, depressive symptoms and self-rated health. Thus, it appears as if survival expectations are informed by lived experiences, exposures and resources.”


And while she acknowledges that race is fixed and that family socioeconomic status cannot be easily changed, Nguyen believes that the data attached to race and class speaks to the need for developing a range of interventions that can help at-risk young people in hopes to change their health outcomes. “These interventions may take the form of mentoring programs that connect youth with professionals in their prospective career of interest; college-readiness programs; tutoring programs; after-school recreational programs; summer camp or a variety of other programs that help keep youths engaged and support them in the completion of their goals.”


To learn more about depression and suicide among people of color, go here.


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