Baby Boomers: Not the ‘Healthiest Generation’

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Every generation likes to think it’s healthier than the one that came before, but baby boomers can’t make that claim.

In a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that a sample of the baby boom generation, the 78 million Americans who were born in the post-war birth explosion from 1946 to 1964, were less healthy than many of their parents. Never mind the fact that Baby boomers have been dubbed the Healthiest Generation, since they have the longest life expectancy of any previous generation, and that  they were able to exploit advances in medical care and reap the benefits of public health campaigns highlighting the dangers of smoking and unhealthy diets. That moniker may simply no longer apply, since it turns out that they have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol than members of the previous generation.

The revelation comes from data in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a national snapshot of health measures and behaviors conducted by the U.S. government. Dr. Dana King, a professor in family medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine and his colleagues compared baby boomers aged 46 years to 64 years between 2007 and 2010 to similar aged Americans in 1988 to 1994. Overall, only 13% of baby boomers rated their health as ‘excellent’ while nearly three times as many, 32%, of those in the previous generation considered themselves in excellent health.

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King and his team also documented some of the evidence for this difference in health: 7% of the those born in the baby boom use a cane or other device to help them walk, for example, compared to 3% in the previous generation; and 13% of boomers have some limitations in their ability to perform their everyday tasks — such as walk up a flight or stairs or mow the lawn — compared to 8.8% of those in the earlier cohort.

“Baby boomers are living longer, so I think there may be presumptions from that they are the healthiest generation,” says King. “But they are not in excellent health while they are waiting around to live two to three years longer. Unfortunately they may be living longer with a greater burden of chronic disease, and more disability. It’s not exactly a good public health outcome.”

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Hypertension is a particularly troubling example of that—both because of the raw numbers and because of the cardiovascular damage that can result from the condition: 35% of those in the previous generation had high blood pressure, while more than double that proportion, 75%, of baby boomers do. And that’s despite greater awareness of the condition, as well as better screening methods and treatments for runaway readings.

Why are public health campaigns, as well as improved therapies, not having a greater effect on disease rates? One factor overshadowing any incremental gains in chronic disease may be obesity — a greater portion of the US population is overweight or obese than ever before, and those extra pounds can trigger a host of unhealthy medical conditions. And rather than treat the root cause of obesity, advances in medical care — drugs that lower cholesterol, medications that drop blood pressure, and bypass surgeries that fix plaque-burdened hearts — may only be masking and perpetuating the problem. “Medication use has definitely increased, so we are propping ourselves up on our canes and our medicines,” says King. “We are becoming over dependent on medications and surgical solutions rather than creating our own good health.”

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The disconnect between what we generally perceive to be the longest lived, and presumably healthiest generation, and the reality of the toll that obesity is taking on their health is important to quantify, says King. It may be that public health campaigns to encourage more physical activity, or improved eating habits, are not effective enough against the counter-advertising of unhealthy foods high is salt, fat and sugar. Either way, dispelling the myth of health could be an important step in shrinking the gap between reality and belief when it comes to the biggest generation.

8 comments
Chronojourner
Chronojourner

Two points:  First, when most baby boomers were born, America had tghe highest fat content in its diet than any nation in history.  While many baby boomers have changed their dietary habits, I suspect that this early fat intake in the formative years has something to do with it.  Second, I wonder when and how the baby boom got redefined.  When I was growing up the baby boom dated from 1942 to 1964, not 1946 to 1964.  The change seems to have occurred sometime in the 1990s or ealy 2000s, but it you like at the actual birth statistics, the spike in births began almost exactly nine months after Pearl Harbour (i.e., 1942).  It kind of erks me that they've changed it to reflect the end of the war rather than when births actually began to spike.

snewsom2997
snewsom2997

The fact is a lot of the medicine and healthcare today, doesn't fix anything, it just fills an existing hole, and makes new holes. All we are doing is keeping people alive until enough of their bodily systems up and fail that they die. The sad fact is these people and all people are going to die anyway, another sad fact is that the choice is to go out in a blaze of glory or rot in a bed bankrupt. Those should be individual choices, paid for by individual productivity. The boomers through Medicare, want more than they paid in themselves, and more than their kids and grandkids will be willing to pay. The will get to live the life, with the genetics they were born with, no more no less, for some that is a few minutes for others it is 120 years, humans don't get to individual make that call, and the government cannot change the result.

sixtymile
sixtymile

Hey, you-all statistical geniuses out there! Medical technology that keeps more people alive longer doesn't make them healthier. It does add a number to the sample population who are not healthy and wouldn't otherwise still be living.

marvinlzinn
marvinlzinn

This report is no surprise. (I am 67). 

Yes, we have superior medical care for most things, but too many drugs with side effects, (A patient just wants a pill to solve the problem he caused.) The worst is "fast food", the exact cause of the most serious disease we have.

(If I believed doctors I would have already been dead three times.)

 marvin



lindsaygray
lindsaygray

What's new in the past 50 or 60 years. Two things: addictive TV watching, and junk food.

A doctor once told me that what is bankrupting the health system is the modern advent of BP drugs and blood thinners. Pump those into a creaky, heart-diseased 70 or 80 year old and they will go on another 10 years — but at what cost? and with what quality of life?

The solution to ill-health is simple: More exercise, and an intelligent, healthy diet.


StephenHauer
StephenHauer

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Doggy GOO builds Tolerance to Enviro via a Sublingual Peanut Butter Treat.