Adolescents’ expectations for the future predict health behaviors in early adulthood


McDade, Thomas W.; Chyu, Laura; Duncan, Greg J.; Hoyt, Lindsay T.; Doane, Leah D.; & Adam, Emma K. (2011). Adolescents' expectations for the future predict health behaviors in early adulthood. Social Science and Medicine. vol. 73 (3) pp. 391-398 , PMCID: PMC3148854


Health-related behaviors in adolescence establish trajectories of risk for obesity and chronic degenerative diseases, and they represent an important pathway through which socio-economic environments shape patterns of morbidity and mortality. Most behaviors that promote health involve making choices that may not pay off until the future, but the factors that predict an individual’s investment in future health are not known. In this paper we consider whether expectations for the future in two domains relevant to adolescents in the U.S.—perceived chances of living to middle age and perceived chances of attending college—are associated with an individual’s engagement in behaviors that protect health in the long run. We focus on adolescence as an important life stage during which habits formed may shape trajectories of disease risk later in life. We use data from a large, nationally representative sample of American youth (the US National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health) to predict levels of physical activity, fast food consumption, and cigarette smoking in young adulthood in relation to perceived life chances in adolescence, controlling for baseline health behaviors and a wide range of potentially confounding factors. We found that adolescents who rated their chances of attending college more highly exercised more frequently and smoked fewer cigarettes in young adulthood. Adolescents with higher expectations of living to age 35 smoked fewer cigarettes as young adults. Parental education was a significant predictor of perceived life chances, as well as health behaviors, but for each outcome the effects of perceived life chances were independent of, and often stronger than, parental education. Perceived life chances in adolescence may therefore play an important role in establishing individual trajectories of health, and in contributing to social gradients in population health.


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Journal Article

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Social Science and Medicine


McDade, Thomas W.
Chyu, Laura
Duncan, Greg J.
Hoyt, Lindsay T.
Doane, Leah D.
Adam, Emma K.

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