U study: Teens who think they'll die young live fast

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 28, 2009 - 11:56 PM

A self-fulfilling prophecy? Teens who are less hopeful seem to engage in riskier behavior, a University of Minnesota study found. For example, they were seven times more likely to later be diagnosed with HIV or AIDS.

They used to say that teenagers think they're immortal, and that's why they do such dangerous things.

Now, a University of Minnesota study has found that a surprising number of teenagers believe they're going to die young -- and that may be why they're so reckless.

Nearly 15 percent of teenagers said they have a 50-50 chance -- or less -- of living to the ripe old age of 35, according to a survey released today.

In truth, their odds are much higher: Roughly 96 out of 100 will celebrate their 35th birthdays, according to national statistics.

But the study shows that teenagers who are most pessimistic are also most likely to put themselves in danger -- taking drugs, attempting suicide or having unprotected sex.

"It was surprising; maybe disturbing is the better word," said Dr. Iris Borowsky, an associate professor of pediatrics, who led the study.

"[They] may take risks because they feel hopeless and figure that not much is at stake."

The researchers based their findings on a 1995 nationwide survey of more than 20,000 students in grades seven to 12, as well as follow-up surveys in 1996 and 2001-2002.

In the past, Borowsky said, it was widely believed that teenagers underestimate danger -- what some call the "myth of personal invulnerability," or "It can't happen to me." Many assumed that's why teenagers engaged in "self-jeopardizing behaviors," according to Borowsky and her colleagues.

But recent studies have cast that into doubt.

One of the most striking findings in today's study, she said, was that the fatalists were seven times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with HIV or AIDS by the time they were young adults.

Which came first?

They also found that racial minorities were more pessimistic than white teenagers. Nearly three in 10 American Indians, and one in four blacks, expected to die young, compared to one in 10 whites.

Overall, the pessimists were more likely to be arrested, be injured in fights, use marijuana, cocaine or other drugs and try to kill themselves.

The researchers tried to find out which came first: the dangerous behavior or the pessimistic attitudes. "What we found in the end was that it went both ways," Borowsky said. Teens who engaged in risky behaviors thought they would die young; and those who thought they would die young took more risks.

On an optimistic note, they found that the pessimism tends to fade over time. By the time they were young adults, far fewer expected an early death, said Borowsky. "That makes sense," she said. "As you get older you develop a more accurate perception."

By the time the study ended, the oldest participants were in their mid-20s. And, in fact, 94 of the 20,594 original study subjects had died.

The researchers didn't track the causes of death, Borowsky said, but they know one thing: The pessimists were no more likely to die than the optimists. "There was no significant relationship between a high perceived risk for dying before age 35 and actual death," the scientists wrote.

As a medical doctor, Borowsky said, she sees a message in the findings: It's important to ask teenagers how they see the future and their place in it. If they don't see "a long road ahead" for themselves, it may be time to intervene, she said.

The study appears in the July issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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