Despite huge advances in medical treatments and technology, and rising life expectancy around the world, it appears that baby boomers are heading for a health bust. Poor lifestyle choices, inadequate nutrition, too little exercise and too much stress are leaving this "generation of promise" in peril. Research in both the United States and Canada reveals boomers have more chronic disease and disability than their parents experienced, at the same age.
Baby Boomers and Rising Life Expectancy: So-called baby boomers are people born in the post-war years between about 1946 and 1964. According to national census data, 78 million children were born during this period in the US, and another 9.6 million in Canada.
According to a report prepared for the United States Congress, average life expectancy in 1946 in the US, for both sexes combined, was 66.7 years — meaning a child born in that year could be expected to live to the age of 66.7. In Canada, life expectancy for a child born in 1946 was 68.6 years. By 2012, life expectancy had jumped to 81.4 in Canada, and 78.4 in the United States, according to the CIA's World Factbook.
In February 2013, two reports were issued, each with damning evidence about the health status and behaviors of baby boomers. Both studies indicated that, while boomers might expect to live longer than their parents, they would suffer from more chronic diseases at similar ages, impeding their overall quality of life in later years.
Boomers in the United States: In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Internal Medicine), the health status of baby boomers was compared with that of the previous generation. Drawing on data from the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the researchers analyzed statistics from 1988-1994 for the previous generation (average age 54.5 years), and from 2007-2010 for baby boomers (average age 54.1).
Overall health status was lower among boomers, with only 13% reporting to be in "excellent" health, vs. 32% in their parents' generation. Since the NHANES survey involves both interviews and physical examinations, the researchers were able to compare objective measures, as well. The baby boomers had higher levels of obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and
Boomers in Canada: In its 2013 Report on the Health of Canadians, the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation had similar findings regarding the health behaviors of baby boomers. The vast majority (85%) don't consume enough fruits and vegetables (crucial components of a longevity diet), with about a fifth consuming far too much sodium, putting them at risk of high blood pressure. More than 40% report being active less than the recommended 30-60 minutes at least three times per week, and almost 30% said they are "often or always" stressed. In addition, 12% report being heavy drinkers, and 21% still smoke.
Perhaps of greatest surprise and concern is the finding that, despite these poor lifestyle behaviors, a full 80% of the Canadian boomers believe their doctors would rate them as healthy.
The JAMA report's lead author, Dana King, Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at West Virginia University, tells me that boomers don't seem to understand how their actions affect their long-term health.
"I'm sure they want to be healthy," he says. "But they're not making the changes necessary, like eating a healthy diet, watching their weight, and stopping smoking, that would make a big difference."
More information, higher standards? Asked if it's possible that boomers are more knowledgeable about healthy eating and exercise, and that they therefore hold themselves to a higher standard (consequently assessing themselves to be in poorer health by not measuring up), King argues that numbers don't lie.
"Some people have asked if we're just being too hard on the boomers. But the NHANES survey isn't just a series of questionnaires about perceived health," he observes. "It involves physical exams, with empirical results, so we can directly compare the two generations. We're using specific data, and applying the measurements to both groups."
Regarding the apparent disconnect between perception and reality in the Canadian study, King says not realizing you have unhealthy behaviors is a "bad problem".
"It's as if people think 'well, I'm not completely disabled, so I'm still okay'," he says.
The good news: King's study reports some positive findings: that baby boomers are less likely to smoke tobacco, and have lower rates of chronic emphysema as a result. He also stresses the fact that it's never too late to make healthy changes in diet, exercise, and smoking cessation. King cites his own past research, published in The American Journal of Medicine, showing that adopting healthy behaviors in middle-age can bring measurable and significant benefits in lower rates of cardiovascular disease and overall mortality.
Without those changes, and if this trend continues, the next generation is unlikely to enjoy greater quality of life in older age, in addition to a greater life expectancy.
Read More: Get on the Right Track:
2013 Report on the Health of Canadians. Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation Research Paper. Accessed February 6, 2013.
Dana E King, Arch G Mainous, Mark E Geesey. "Turning Back the Clock: Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle in Middle Age." American Journal of Medicine (2007) 120, 598-603.
Dana E King, Eric Matheson, Svetlana Chirina, Anoop Shankar, Jordan Browman-Fulks. "Overall Health Status of Baby Boomers Appears Lower Than Previous Generation." JAMA Intern Med Published online February 4, 2013.
David E Leon. Trends in European Life Expectancy: A Salutary View. Int. J. Epidemiol. (2011) 40 (2): 271-277. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyr (2011)
Generations in Canada: The baby boomers (1946 to 1965). Statistics Canada Public Information Sheet. Accessed February 6, 2013.
Life Expectancy at Birth, By Sex, Canada. Statistics Canada Public Information Sheet. Accessed February 7, 2013.
Life Expectancy in the United States. CRS Report for Congress. Accessed February 7, 2013.
Moser K, Shkolnikov V, Leon DA. "World mortality 1950–2000: divergence replaces convergence from the late 1980s. Bull World Health Organ 2005;83:202-9.
Profile America: Facts for Features. Special Edition on Baby Boomers. US Census Bureau Public Information Sheet. Accessed February 6, 2013.