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Aim  Persons with spina bifida who adopt unhealthy lifestyles could be at increased risk of adverse health outcomes because the presence of spina bifida may magnify this risk. We estimated overall and age-specific prevalence of selected health risk behaviors (HRBs) in young people with spina bifida and examined the association between HRBs and depression.

Method  We performed analyses on data obtained from individuals with spina bifida (n=130; mean age 23y SD 4y 5mo; 64 males, 66 females; 64% lumbosacral lesion; 77% with shunt) who participated in a population-based survey conducted by the Arkansas Spinal Cord Commission in 2005.

Results  Compared with national estimates, young people with spina bifida tend to eat less healthy diets, do less exercise, and engage in more sedentary activities. Respondents were less likely to use substances (alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs), which peaked among 25 to 31 year olds. About 90% saw a doctor in the previous year. Nearly one half reported mild or major depressive symptoms. In the logistic regression analysis after controlling for potential confounders (age, sex, ethnic group, education, employment, marital status, living arrangement, level of lesion, presence of shunt, mobility, self-rated health and healthcare utilization), major depressive symptoms were associated with current alcohol drinking (adjusted odds ratio: 4.74; 95% CI 1.18–19.04).

Interpretation  Young adults with spina bifida exhibit unhealthy behaviors that continue into their late 20s. The findings highlight the need to increase awareness of their health risk profiles in the spina bifida community and show opportunities for mental health and health risk screening and counseling by healthcare providers.