The baby boomer generation isn’t necessarily healthier than their forbears as they head into old age despite medical advances made in their lifetimes, finds a study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, and the implications for healthcare costs as a result could be “astounding.”
Researchers said that although medicine has improved significantly in the past few decades, leading to progressively increasing life expectancy, previous studies have also shown mixed results regarding whether boomers are healthier than prior generations.
“The proportion of people with diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity [is] increasing. And perhaps even more disturbing, the proportion of people who are disabled increased substantially,” said Dana King, a professor in the department of family medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, who co-authored the report on the study along with his colleagues.
The researchers examined the health status of aging boomers relative to the previous generation, using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1988-94 for the previous generation, and from 2007 to 2010 for boomers, focusing on respondents aged 46 to 64 years old during either period.
Comparisons were drawn with regard to health status, function and work disability, healthy lifestyle characteristics, and presence of chronic disease.
The demographic characteristics of these two cohorts were very similar, except for the proportions in each racial/ethnic group, as there were greater proportions of non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics in the boomer generation surveyed.
“Overall, health status was lower in baby boomers, with 13.2% reporting “excellent” health compared with 32% of individuals in the previous generation,” the researchers found. More than twice as many sampled boomers used a walking assistance device compared to the previous generation (6.9% vs. 3.3%), and boomers were more likely to be limited in work or have functional limitations.
That decrease in health status could be due to lifestyle factors: obesity was more common among boomers, as nearly four in ten boomers (38.7%) were obese compared to 29.4% of the prior generation.
Regular exercise was also less frequent among boomers. Only 35% exercised more than 12 times a month, versus half (49.9%) of the cohort they were being compared to. More than half of boomers reported no regular physical activity.
Moderate drinking was higher in the boomer cohort, as well (67.3% vs. 37.2%), although there were fewer smokers than in previous generations (21.3% vs. 27.6%).
More boomers were likely to have hypertension compared to the previous generation (43.0% vs. 36.4%) and were more likely to take medication for hypertension as well. Hypercholesterolemia was also significantly more common among boomers (73.% vs. 33.8%), and researchers found the generation was more likely to have diabetes and take diabetes medication.
However, boomers were less likely to have had a myocardial infarction compared to the previous generation (3.6% vs. 5.3%) and the frequency of emphysema also decreased among boomers (2.3% vs. 3.5%).
With millions of baby boomers already this unhealthy, the impact on the health system could be huge.
“The implications for health care costs in the next decade are astounding,” King told NPR. “The baby boomers are going into those high medical-use years in much worse condition than their forefathers.”
Written by Alyssa Gerace