Children and adolescents who grow up in urban environments may experience fewer benefits than peers who spend their childhoods in the countryside, unlike what has been observed in the past century. That, at least, is the finding of a study, reported in the journal Nature, conducted by scientists at Imperial College London, among others.

The team, led by Anu Mishra and composed of more than 1,500 physicians and experts affiliated with several research institutions, analyzed height and weight data of 71 million children and adolescents, aged five to 19 years, residing in urban and rural areas in 200 countries. The information was collected from 1990 to 2020. Cities, experts note, can offer a multitude of opportunities in terms of education, nutrition, sports activities and health care.

During the 20th century, in fact, school-age children living in urban environments tended to achieve significant improvements in height and body mass index levels. Since the 21st century, however, in most of the countries considered, these beneficial effects appear to have reversed. In 1990, scholars report, children living in cities were associated with a slightly higher body mass index than peers living in rural areas. Since 2020, however, the gap between the BMI of young people in the two types of environments appears to have narrowed.

“Cities continue to provide many health benefits for boys and adolescents,” Mishra points out, “but thanks to modern sanitation and improvements in nutrition and health care, rural areas are becoming increasingly efficient in safeguarding the health of younger people. Our results challenge common perceptions about the negative aspects of urban living.”

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