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Aging Poorly: Another Act Of Baby Boomer Rebellion

Feb 4, 2013
Originally published on February 6, 2013 10:40 am

Baby boomers have a reputation for being addicted to exercise and obsessed with eating well.

But that story didn't jibe with what physician Dana E. King and his colleagues see walking through the door of their family practice every day in Morgantown, W.Va.

"The perception is that the baby boomers are very active — they are, you know, climbing up mountains, and they are a very healthy bunch," says King, a professor in the department of family medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. "We actually see people that are burdened with diabetes, hypertension, obesity, [and] who are taking an awful lot of medication."

So King and his colleagues mined data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a big federal survey, to compare baby boomers — those who are now in their late 40s to 60s — with people from two decades ago who were in that age bracket.

There were some surprises, says King, who, along with his colleagues, reports the results in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

Baby boomers are healthier in some important ways. They are much less likely to smoke, have emphysema or get heart attacks. But in lots of other ways, the picture's not so great.

"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," King says.

Double the percentage of baby boomers, as compared with the previous generation, need a cane or a walker to get around. And even more have problems so bad that they can't work.

"Only 13 percent of people said they were in excellent health compared with 33 percent a generation ago, and twice as many said they were in poor health," King says. "And that's by their own admission."

King says the reasons are pretty clear: big increases in obesity and big decreases in exercise.

"About half of people 20 years ago said they exercised regularly, which meant three times a week, and that rate now is only about 18 percent," he says. "That's an astonishing change in just one generation."

The impact could be far-reaching if millions of baby boomers are already in such bad shape just as they're starting to grow old.

"The implications for health care costs in the next decade are astounding," King says. "The baby boomers are going into those high medical-use years in much worse condition than their forefathers."

The report comes at a time when the baby boomers are starting to enter old age in large numbers. "There are ... something like 10,000 a day reaching 65," says Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging. "It doesn't look good."

Part of the reported decline in health may be that baby boomers look sicker. They're getting diagnosed and treated for health problems their parents never knew they had.

But there may also be something else going on. "I'm part of the leading edge of the baby boom, and I know from personal experience that we have high expectations of life," says Linda Martin, who studies health trends at the Rand Corp. "And so it could be that the decline in reports of excellent health could simply be that we have [a] higher expectation of what excellent health is."

Despite all this, baby boomers are living longer than their parents. But along the way, they're having a lot more knee operations and taking a lot more pills for blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Baby boomers have reputation for being health nuts, addicted to exercise and obsessed with eating well. Just imagine an entire generation working out to Jane Fonda videos and eating Lean Cuisine. Well, new research explodes that myth for most of them.

As NPR's Rob Stein reports, the Me generation appears to be far less healthy than previous generations.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Dana King at the West Virginia University School of Medicine knows what everyone thinks about baby boomers.

DANA KING: The perception is that the baby boomers are very active. They're, you know, climbing up mountains, and they are an extremely healthy bunch.

STEIN: But that just didn't jive with what King and his colleagues see walk through the door of their family practice every day in Morgantown.

KING: We actually see people that are burdened with diabetes, hypertension, obesity who are taking an awful lot of medication.

STEIN: So King and his colleagues decided to see what's really going on with baby boomers. They analyzed data from a big federal health survey to compare baby boomers to people who are about the same age 20 years ago.

KING: We found some surprising findings.

STEIN: Yes, baby boomers are healthier in some ways. They are much less likely to smoke, have emphysema or get heart attacks. But in this week's issue of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, King and his colleagues report that in lots of other ways, the picture's not so great.

KING: The proportion of people with diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity are increasing. And perhaps even more disturbing, the proportion of people who are disabled has increased substantially.

STEIN: Baby boomers had double the percentage needing a cane or a walker just to get around.

KING: And this is in people that are fairly young.

STEIN: Just in their 40s, 50s and early 60s. And even more have problems so bad they can't work.

KING: Only 13 percent of people said they were in excellent health compared with 33 percent a generation ago, and twice as many said they were in poor health. And that's by their own admission.

STEIN: Now, King says it's pretty clear what's going on here: big increases in obesity and big decreases in exercise.

KING: About half of people 20 years ago said that they exercised regularly, which meant three times a week, and that rate now is only about 18 percent. That's an astonishing change in just one generation.

STEIN: And King says the impact of all this on society could be far-reaching.

KING: The implications for health care costs in the next decade are astounding. The baby boomers are going into those high medical-use years in much worse condition than their forefathers.

STEIN: Now, there are some caveats. Linda Martin studies health trends at the Rand Corporation. She says part of it may be that baby boomers just seem sicker because they're getting diagnosed and treated for health problems their parents never knew they had. And there may also be something else going on.

LINDA MARTIN: I'm part of the leading edge of the baby boom, and I know from personal experience that we have high expectations of life. And so, it could be that the decline in reports of excellent health may simply be that we have higher expectations of what excellent health is.

STEIN: Regardless, other experts say the trend is worrying. Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging says it comes as baby boomers are just starting to enter old age in large numbers.

RICHARD SUZMAN: There are, you know, something like 10,000 a day reaching 65. It doesn't look good.

STEIN: And despite all their health problems, baby boomers are living longer than their parents. So the question is, if they're already in such bad shape, how much will the baby boomers be able to enjoy those extra years. Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.