New research reported in the February 4 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association, has found that, “Despite their longer life expectancy over previous generations, U.S. 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.”
“On a positive note,” however, the researchers found that “baby boomers are less likely to smoke cigarettes and experience lower rates of emphysema and myocardial infarction [heart attack] than the previous generation.”
Baby boomers are defined to include the 78 million people born in the United States between 1946 and 1964. In 2010, they made up 26.1% of the U.S. population.
The new research report, by Dana E. King, M.D., M.S., of the West Virginia University School of Medicine, and colleagues, entitled, “The Status of Baby Boomers’ Health in the United States. The Healthiest Generation?” was published February 4, 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine.
“There seems to be somewhat of a disconnect between the reputation of baby boomers for being healthy and what we see in increasing rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity,” study author Dr. Dana King, told HealthDay. “It’s really discouraging that they’re not the healthiest generation.”
The Study; Method
The researchers analyzed and compared health status data from the large, ongoing National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for persons aged 46 to 64 years old during the period 2007 to 2010 (Baby Boomers) to those for persons aged 46 to 64 during the period 1988 to 1994 (the previous generation).
The demographic characteristics of the two groups were very similar, but the Baby Boomers included a greater percentage of non-Hispanic blacks (11.3% vs. 9.4%) and Hispanics (9.8% vs. 3.7%) than the previous generation.
“The 2 cohorts were compared with regard to health status, functional and work disability, and lifestyle characteristics, and presence of chronic disease,” the authors explained.
The results showed that reported overall health status was less than half as good among Baby Boomers (with only 13% reporting “excellent” health), as among the previous generation (in which 32% had reported “excellent” health).
The Baby Boomers also reported significantly more problems with disability than the prior generation. Of the Baby Boomers,
- more than twice as many reported using a walking assist device, such as a walker or cane (7% of Baby Boomers, as opposed to 3% of the previous generation);
- 14% were limited in work (as opposed to versus 10% of the previous generation); and
- 14% had a functional limitation (as opposed to 9% of the previous generation).
Most importantly, obesity was significantly more common among the Baby Boomers (39%) than among the previous generation (29%). So was hypertension (high blood pressure) (43% of Baby Boomers versus 36% of the previous generation), and high cholesterol (74% of Baby Boomers versus 34% of the previous generation).
Diabetes was also more prevalent among Baby Boomers (15.5% versus 12% of the previous generation).
As these findings were summarized by MedPage Today, “Even after controlling for factors including race and socioeconomics, individuals born during the post-war boom from 1946 through 1964 had 46% more diabetes, 38% more hypertension, and 5.9-fold more hypercholesterolemia [high cholesterol], all significant differences.”
Very significantly, far fewer Baby Boomers got regular exercise than did members of the previous generation. Only 35% of the baby boomers reported getting exercise more than 12 times a month, whereas fully 50% of the previous generation did so. And, 52% of the Baby Boomers reported no regular physical activity at all, compared to only 17% of the previous generation who reported no physical activity.
On the positive side, the data showed no significant difference between the generations in extent of cancer, and the Baby Boomers had somewhat less emphysema (2% versus 4%) and slightly fewer heart attacks (4% versus 5%) than the previous generation.
In addition, somewhat fewer of the Baby Boomers reported smoking than did their predecessors (28% versus 21%).
Despite stereotypes of Baby Boomers being the health conscious generation, the data showed that by important health measures, including extent of chronic disease, disability, self-rated health, and important lifestyle factors that predict disease and shorter lifespan, such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and lack of exercise, in fact, the Baby Boomers were less healthy than the previous generation.
What accounts for this? “Obesity seems to be the underlying cause of many of the health issues baby boomers are facing,” Nancy Copperman, a registered dietitian and director of public health initiatives at North Shore-LIJ Health System, in Great Neck, N.Y. (who was not involved in the new research) told HealthDay. “I wasn’t surprised to see the data because we’ve seen the obesity epidemic over the past two to three decades really increase, and with that heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.”
Comparing the Baby Boomers with the previous generation, Dr. King, the study author, also pointed out that “There was a huge difference in their typical amount of exercise.”
Ms. Cooperman agreed that “Baby boomers are definitely moving less than their parents did.” “Our parents didn’t have the conveniences we have,” she said. “Now, often both parents are working and spending less time doing manual labor. Instead of mowing the lawn or cleaning the house, they might hire someone to do it,” she noted.
Dr. King, the study author, urged Baby Boomers to adopt healthier lifestyles – to get more exercise and eat healthier diets. “It’s still not too late for baby boomers to get healthier,” he told HealthDay. Dr. King said that his previous research showed that “it is possible to ‘turn back the clock’ even in one’s 50s and 60s.”
On the hopeful side, Dr. King noted that the reduction in smoking shown by the research data — from 28 percent of the previous generation to 21 percent of the baby boomers — “shows the value of conducting a concerted public health campaign.” “The nation needs to focus the same amount of effort now on obesity to discover truly effective solutions,” he told HealthDay.
“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,” the researchers concluded.
The research was funded in part by research grants from the National Institutes of Health. The researchers reported no conflicts of interest.
The full report of the new research, entitled, “The Status of Baby Boomers’ Health in the United States. The Healthiest Generation?” was published February 4, 2013 in JAMA Internal Medicine.
For a list of healthy lifestyle practices, see the webpage on Healthy Living, provided by MedlinePlus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
For more information about healthy living, losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight, healthy diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors that promote wellness and prevent diseases, see the HelpingYouCare® resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers, including:
- Weight Loss/ Maintaining a Healthy Weight: Physical Wellness;
- Diet & Nutrition: Physical Wellness;
- Exercise: Physical Wellness;
- Sleep, Hygiene, Quit Smoking & Other Healthy Practices: Physical Wellness;
- Activities to Preserve Mental Acuity: Intellectual Wellness;
- Social Interaction & A Sense of Connection With Others: Social Wellness;
- Other Areas of Wellness: Emotional, Ethical/ Spiritual & Vocational Wellness; and
- Healthy Living: Stories of Inspiring Seniors.
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