Baby Boomers Appear to Be Less Healthy Than Parents

As the first group of baby boomers moves toward retirement age, an increasing amount of research data indicates that they may perhaps be the first generation to enter their golden years in worse health than their parents. While not yet definitive, the results draw a surprisingly different picture than the commonly accepted image of health-obsessed workout extremists who know their antioxidants from their trans fats and look many years younger than their actual age. Notable is that these same baby boomers are more healthy in some important ways – for instance, they are significantly less likely to smoke. But large studies are steadily finding that they are inclined to describe themselves as less able-bodied and robust than the generations before them reported at the same age. They are more apt to report struggles climbing stairs, getting up from a chair and doing other everyday activities, as well as more recurring problems such as high cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes. “We’re seeing some very powerful evidence all pointing to parallel findings,” said Mark D. Hayward, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “The trend seems to be that people are not as healthy as they approach retirement as they were in older generations. It’s very disturbing.” While they warn that the information on this is just starting to surface, researchers state the findings are steeped in quite a few unhealthy trends, most particularly the obesity epidemic. A whopping two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and those added pounds boost cholesterol and blood pressure, cause joints to wear out quicker, and increase the risk of a host of debilitating health problems. And despite all those boomers who have gym memberships, as a whole they are inclined to be less physically active than their parents and grandparents, their day-to-day routines frequently controlled by desk jobs and the drive to work and back. “A lot of what we visualize about the baby boomers is the people who went to college – the highly educated group that gets all the attention. They’re the cultural icon,” said David R. Weir, an economist at the University of Michigan, observing that studies have revealed that better-educated people tend to have more healthy lifestyles and improved access to health care. “But not everyone went to college, and not everyone is engaging in these healthful activities.” Yet even those who attempt to take care of themselves are not always completely successful. A good example is Larry Kirkland, a 57-year-old sculptor living in Northwest Washington. Kirkland walks and swims on a regular basis to stay in shape, is smart about what he eats, and fights to keep his weight down. Ask him about his health, and Kirkland will say to you that it’s good. Well, pretty good anyway. First, he has had high blood pressure for years, and takes medication to manage it. Then his cholesterol shot up as well, requiring another pill to control that. After that his blood sugar started going up, at which point his doctor reminded him that he probably should drop a minimum of 10 pounds if he wishes to prevent diabetes. “There are the creeping aches and pains. I dislocated my shoulder once, and that continues to bug me. I have knees that decide to be wobbly on occasion. I know that as you get older things tend to begin to fall apart,” Kirkland stated, adding that he gets fever blisters and that his psoriasis flares up when he is stressed. “I can get under quite a bit of pressure from my work,” Kirkland said. In fact, boomers are reporting more stress than previous generations – from things like their jobs, their commutes, taking care of their parents and their kids – all of which can take a physical and mental toll, which is made worse by having less support from extended families and communities, experts assert. “People are working two jobs. They are not sleeping as much. They’re experiencing more job insecurity. They have less time to take care of themselves. They are more socially isolated,” said Lisa Berkman of the Harvard School of Public Health. “This all could add up to a huge crisis and really calls for us to examine the things that perhaps we’re not doing so well.” A number of researchers are unconvinced, saying that U.S. life expectancy has improved consistently for decades, complemented by a steady drop in disability rates. Increasing rates of chronic disease may merely indicate that such illnesses are being diagnosed earlier, which could translate into longer lives and less disability due to boomers getting their heart disease and diabetes under control sooner. “This doesn’t cause me to despair,” said Kenneth Manton, a demographer at Duke University. “You have to take this data in the context of other data, such as life expectancy.” Others concur that the data are unclear because the baby boomers are not really old enough yet to report major health problems in sizeable numbers, but they did add that the findings so far are ominous. “We haven’t seen any enormous effects yet,” said David M. Cutler, an economist at Harvard. “But we may be starting to see some inklings of what’s coming.” One of the most disturbing red flags was thrown up by the federally funded Health and Retirement Study, which is tracking more than 20,000 U.S. adults as they move through middle age toward retirement. When researchers examined the first wave of baby boomers to enter the study – 5,030 adults born between 1948 and 1953 – they were stunned to learn that they appeared to report poorer health than groups born between 1936 and 1941, and between 1942 and 1947. The baby boomers were much less prone than their predecessors to describe their health as “excellent” or “very good,” and were more likely to report having struggles with routine activities, such as walking several blocks or lifting 10 pounds. They were also more likely to report pain, drinking and psychiatric problems, and chronic problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. “It’s not what I expected,” said Beth J. Soldo of the Population Aging Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who headed up the analysis. It is uncertain whether boomers are really sicker or are simply more health-conscious because of being better educated and having greater access to information. They may also have higher expectations, making them more likely to notice and complain about aches and pains which earlier generations would have accepted as just part of getting older. “As they age, they may be less tolerant of the changes they see – minor pains, less stamina, muscle loss and strength,” Soldo said. “I don’t just think they are crybabies or whiners. I think there is a changing definition of what good health means.” But self-reports of health tend to be powerful predictors of risk of death at any given age, Soldo and others say. “We have been making progress with the elderly, who are doing better,” said Dana Goldman, who studies health issues at the Rand Corp. “But while we’ve been patting our backs about the older people, the younger generation has been ignored. Disability is rising fastest among the youngest age groups.” The findings are consistent with a number of studies, including one last year that found American adults have poorer health than their British counterparts, and a preliminary analysis of data collected between 1972 and 2003 for the National Health Interview Survey, a nationally representative survey of more than 100,000 Americans. “Overall it looks like there’s been some recent declines in overall health among younger adults compared to the cohorts of previous decades,” said Robert Hummer, a sociologist at the University of Texas, who conducted that analysis. “It’s worrisome.” One of Hummer’s colleagues produced similar findings in a survey of 2,500 adults between 1995 and 2001. “It’s pretty scary,” said John Mirowsky, who conducted the survey. “Until now people have been living longer and living longer without the need for assistance – they can dress themselves and take care of themselves. But it looks like we may be on the verge of a change where we’ll have an increasing proportion of the elderly needing assistance, and possibly a decline in life expectancy.” If the findings are further supported by additional analysis, the trend could compel policymakers to think again on a host of expectations and projections about the nation’s overall medical bill and the future of Social Security and other retirement programs. “If people are entering early old age in worse health, it doesn’t bode well for society,” said Richard M. Suzman of the National Institute on Aging. “It’s quite worrying.” Bottom line: So, back to what Mom and Grandma have been saying all along – eat right, exercise, take your supplements, relax and smell the roses as often as you can. This editorial is based on a recent article by Rob Stein of The Washington Post.