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Baby boomers' health worse than their parents reports new study

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
baby boomers, seniors, health problems, obesity, diabetes, disablity

According to a new study, despite their longer life expectancy over previous generations, US baby boomers have higher rates of chronic disease, more disability, and lower self-rated health than members of the previous generation at the same age. These sad statistics were reported online on February 4 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

The study authors are affiliated with West Virginia University School of Medicine, Morgantown. They note that from 1946 through 1964, 78 million baby boomers were born in the United States. In 2010, they comprised 26.1% of the US population. Medicine has improved significantly during baby boomers’ lifetimes. These advancements have led to a progressively increasing life expectancy; however, previous studies have shown mixed results regarding whether baby boomers are healthier than prior generations. Therefore, the researchers examined the health status of aging baby boomers relative to the previous generation. Their goal was to provide a vitally important context for health workforce and policy planning in the coming years.

The investigators reviewed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, focusing on middle-aged respondents (aged 46 - 64 years) from two periods: 1988 to 1994 and 2007 to 2010. They compared the two groups in regard to their self-reported health status, functional and work disability, healthy lifestyle characteristics, and whether they were affected by chronic diseases. The researchers found that the overall health status was lower in baby boomers: only 13.2% reported ‘excellent’ health compared to 32% of individuals in the previous generation. More baby boomers were found to be suffering from disability; more than twice as many baby boomers used walking assist devices (6.9% vs. 3.3%), more were limited in their work by disability (13.8% vs. 10.1%), and 13.5% vs. 8.8% were coping with some type of functional limitation.

The researchers found that the seniors were counted among those in the current obesity epidemic. Compared to previous generations, more baby boomers are obese (38.7% vs. 29.4%); furthermore, they reported that they exercised significantly less often (35.0% vs. 49.9% exercised less than12 times per month). Even worse, more than 50% of the baby boomers said they engaged in no regular physical activity (52.2% vs. 17.4%). Another factor in the baby boomers’ lifestyle was alcohol consumption. Moderate drinking was more common among the boomers compared with the previous generation (67.3% vs. 37.2%). It must be noted that self-reported alcohol consumption is often lower than the actual amount consumed. A “drink before dinner” may actual mean three or more stiff drinks.

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In view of the foregoing, it was not unexpected to find that hypertension was more common (43.0% vs. 36.4%), as well as the percentage of individuals who were taking antihypertensive medications (35.4% vs. 23.2%). Compared to the previous generation, nearly twice as many baby boomers reported being treated for diabetes (11.3% vs. 6.2%). Ten times as many boomers reported taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, compared to the previous generation (25.9% vs. 1.5%). It must be noted, that statins have become much more frequently prescribed for all age groups in recent years.

On a positive note, the number of baby boomers who smoked was less than the previous generation (21.3% vs. 27.6%) and a lower number of baby boomers reported having been diagnosed with emphysema (2.3% vs. 3.5%). Baby boomers were also less likely to have suffered a myocardial infarction (3.6% vs. 5.3%).

The authors concluded: “Given the link between positive healthy lifestyles and subsequent health in this age group, the present study demonstrates a clear need for policies that expand efforts at prevention and healthy lifestyle promotion in the baby boomer generation.”

Take home message:
This study illustrates the impact of healthy lifestyle choices that are prevalent today in individuals of all ages: childhood through old age.

Reference: JAMA Internal Medicine