Fact or Fantasy? Are Aging Baby Boomers Healthier?

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Aging Baby BoomersAging baby boomers – it’s almost a contradiction. The generation of youth that didn’t want to trust anyone over 30 is now more than twice that age. Yes, the revolutionary baby boomers are aging, but are they aging in new ways and do they continue to challenge traditional expectations? Several years ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association’s (JAMA) Internal Medicine publication shared results of a study designed to answer the question of how baby boomers are aging compared to other generations.

There is certainly no shortage of advertisements depicting baby boomers aging as active, energetic adults. Is this image the truth, or is it – like the often-discussed advertising of beautiful female models whose bodies are far from the norm – a piece of fantasy for the most part? Dr. Dana E. King, one of the physicians who authored the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, told NPR’s All Things Considered, “The perception is that the baby boomers are very active — they are, you know, climbing up mountains, and they are a very healthy bunch.”

Whether the image is mostly fact or mostly fiction, you might be asking yourself, “Why does it matter?” How baby boomers are aging matters because we are facing an unprecedented number of older Americans with longer life expectancies depending on a shrinking Medicare resource. The “let’s change the world” attitude of the baby boomer generation will no doubt change the face of healthcare in America by simply growing older.

What the JAMA study found is that there are important generational healthcare differences between baby boomers and the generations before them. Key findings showed

  • A higher rate of hypertension (an increase of about 7%) in baby boomers,
  • A higher rate of elevated cholesterol levels (an increase of about 40%) in baby boomers,
  • A higher rate of diabetes (an increase of about 3%) in baby boomers,
  • A lower rate of emphysema (a decrease of about 1%) in baby boomers, and
  • A lower rate of myocardial infarction (a decrease of about 2%) in baby boomers.

The boomer generation is also much more likely to be taking medications for chronic medical conditions such as those listed above than were their counterparts in the previous generation.

Though many factors may contribute to the higher rates of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, experts agree that obesity plays a huge role. In fact, Web MD cites an alarming statistic: the percentage of obese Americans over the age of 20 more than doubled from the early 1970s to the early 2000s. Obesity is linked to the chronic conditions aging baby boomers are experiencing, so the increase in chronic conditions may be related to unhealthy lifestyles, and aging baby boomers and their lifestyles as portrayed in television advertisements may be more fantasy than reality.

The increased burden on our healthcare system is a definite reality, though; hence the relatively recent push for wellness programs from healthcare insurance providers and employers paying for healthcare coverage. Our increased life expectancy and increased dependency on medical interventions to address more prevalent chronic illnesses may mean an increased responsibility to take care of ourselves.

Through better diet, regular exercise, and more attention to preventive health, we aging baby boomers may be able to take more control over the aging process and make the most of the golden years ahead. After all, the images of climbing up mountains and sailing and walking on the beach are appealing. Most baby boomers already have a good idea of the challenges of growing old if they’ve dealt with their own aging parents. Knowing where we stand compared to previous generations can actually provide motivation to improve our lifestyles now so that we are living not only longer, but also healthier. Let’s go climb those mountains!