There’s some discouraging news for baby boomers.
Americans born between 1948 and 1965 are more likely than the generations that preceded them to have multiple health problems as they age, a new study shows.
And, many develop two or more health conditions up to 20 years sooner than folks from other generations, too.
Until recently the largest generation group in U.S. history, baby boomers have always been a force to reckon with due to their sheer numbers. They have transformed pretty much every market they enter, starting with the diaper industry when they were born and then public schools, so it makes sense that boomers are also upending what aging looks like.
For the study, researchers analyzed data on Americans aged 51 and older who took part in a biennial study sponsored by the U.S. National Institute on Aging.
Generational timelines often differ. But this study classified people, based on the generation they were born into, like this: Greatest generation (born 1923 or earlier); early children of the Depression (1924 to 1930); late children of the Depression (1931 to 1941); war babies (1942 to 1947); early boomers (1948 to 1953); mid boomers (1954 to 1959); and late baby boomers (born 1960 to 1965).
The researchers looked at nine chronic conditions: heart disease; high blood pressure; stroke; diabetes; arthritis; lung disease; cancer (except skin cancer); depression symptoms; and trouble with memory and thinking skills.
Among adults with multiple chronic health problems, arthritis and high blood pressure were the most common for all generations.
But higher rates of depression and diabetes drove the surge in chronic conditions seen in boomers, the investigators found.
Study author Steven Haas said the research was designed to spot trends, not to understand what is driving them.
But, Haas added, a confluence of factors is likely involved, including rising rates of obesity as well as social factors, such as income inequality and reduced upward mobility.
“There have been improvements in treating some chronic diseases over the past few decades, which allows people to live longer with disease and as a result leads to higher population-level rates of disease,” said Haas, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University in University Park.
What’s more, he added, technology is helping doctors diagnose some conditions earlier than ever, which also leads to higher numbers.
The findings were published recently in The Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences.
The trends portend an increased strain not only on the well-being of older Americans, but also on government and private health insurance systems.
Dr. Catherine Sarkisian, a geriatrician and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the study underscores the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle, no matter which generation you are part of.
“We should all be exercising every day, and this includes aerobic activity and strength training to help prevent falls, improve mobility, and [boost] metabolism,” said Sarkisian, who reviewed the findings.
It’s also important to maintain a normal body weight, as obesity is a risk for many chronic health conditions, she added.
“We have dramatically increased the percentage of our population that is obese, and along with this there is an increased burden of diabetes and other diseases,” Sarkisian said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers helpful information on healthy aging.
SOURCES: Steven Haas, PhD, associate professor, sociology and demography, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa.; Catherine Sarkisian, MD, MSHS, geriatrician, professor, division of geriatrics, University of California, Los Angeles; The Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences, June 1, 2022
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