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.