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April 20, 2007

Baby Boomers less fit than parents

There's an interesting article in the Washington Post today discussing preliminary evidence that Baby Boomers will retire in worse health than their parents.

Life expectancies are rising and chronic diseases are being diagnosed and treated earlier, but are these gains translating into healthier retirement years?

One of the most alarming red flags was thrown up by the federally funded Health and Retirement Study, which is tracking more than 20,000 U.S. adults as they move through middle age toward retirement.

When researchers examined the first wave of baby boomers to enter the study -- 5,030 adults born between 1948 and 1953 -- they were shocked to discover that they appeared to report poorer health than groups born between 1936 and 1941, and between 1942 and 1947.

The baby boomers were much less likely than their predecessors to describe their health as "excellent" or "very good," and were more likely to report having difficulty with routine activities, such as walking several blocks or lifting 10 pounds. They were also more likely to report pain, drinking and psychiatric problems, and chronic problems such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. [WaPo]

I liked the article because it touched on the socioeconomic factors that influence health. An expert pointed out that the Baby Boomer generation isn't all affluent and college-educated.  We may be seeing long-term fallout from years of heightened economic insecurity and social isolation, coupled with increasingly sedentary lifestyles and less physically demanding work--and the least well off are probably going to be the hardest hit.

In fact, boomers tend to report more stress than earlier generations -- from their jobs, their commutes, taking care of their parents and their kids -- all of which can take a physical toll, which is compounded by having less support from extended families and communities, experts say.

"People are working two jobs. They are not sleeping as much. They're experiencing more job insecurity. They have less time to take care of themselves. They are more socially isolated," said Lisa Berkman of the Harvard School of Public Health. "This all could add up to a huge crisis and really calls for us to examine the things that perhaps we're not doing so well." [WaPo]

Read the whole thing. The piece does a good job of balancing a potentially sensational lead with informative alternative explanations.


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If you miss the steady harangue and advice of those in the health and medicine fields regarding the long terms benefits to your health of even moderate exercise you must live in a cave or be chained up in the basement. The same goes for the simplest of changes in your diet, most taking no more time or money to institute than how you currently eat. I know some very, very busy people raising kids and working two jobs and they aren't haggard, obese, ill fed couch potatos. Walk vigorously 20 minutes a day. Knock off the sodas and snacks. Insist your children do the same. If you want to whine and insist your lifestyle doesn't afford you the time or money to do so then go ahead and have your heart attack and get out of the way.

Steve-while there are certainly some who just are unwilling to take the time to change, I doubt it's that simple. People in rural communities with little financial resources and few food options, or those in inner cities far from a grocery store, are more likely to have health problems because they're going to go for the 5 meals of cheap macaroni and cheese rather than the 1 or 2 meals of expensive whole wheat pasta and fresh veggies. Obesity-related health problems are far more likely to show up in poor communities than in middle- or upper-class ones. To quote the anti-hunger organizations, in the US calories are cheap but nutrition is expensive.

On a related note, interestingly, some organizations are now saying that the generation Y folks may be the first generation to see a lower life expectancy than their parents, mostly due to obesity and overweight related issues.

acallidryas, some of the healthiest, trimmest societies on Earth subsist almost exclusively on rice (cheap), poultry/chicken (cheap as hell in grocery stores I've shopped all over the nation), and either tea or water (really, really cheap). These societies, largely in southeast and pacific asia hace very low levels of cancer and heart disease, a fraction of the obesity issues present in the west and longevity expectations rivaling ours by many years. Rice, poultry and water are available everywhere in the U.S. and wouldn't constitute a financial hardship for anyone adopting it as a steady diet.

Maybe you're right about the nutritional issues, Steve. But to me, the question is how many poor Americans know that you can be healthy by eating like an Indian subsistence farmer. It's not the kind of thing you learn in public school nutrition classes.
Rice, but not chicken.

You're correct Lindsay, Pepsico and Little Debbie would never sign off on such instruction.

I think that one aspect that is often overlooked is the increased stress due to 'artifical' healthy activies - and there is clear evidence that higher levels of stress decrease overall health.
By 'artifical' activities, I mean that they are not just a part of one's normal routine. Exercise is a great example. In older generations (an in developing countries) a lot of the day is spent in physical activity without any attempt at exercise (walking for transport, physical labor). Now, most people have to artifically inject this into their life, which causes additional stress (finding time, money, feeling guilty). Same deal with food, people used to eat a healthy diet because they had no other choice. Now it requires more thought, often more money, and feeling guilty. Plus, since extra time is spent trying to be healthy, people have less time to relax and de-stress. All of which contributes to decreasing overall health.
So even people who exercises and eats healthy still end up with more stress than their ancestors, and the resultant health affects.

I agree with the article. My personal observation of my stepmother's extended family (and she's small town/rural, which means Family) is that her 40 & 50-year old kids and their kids are doing a lot worse than grandma (my stepmom, who's 73 and in excellent health) and great-grandma (who's 96). Grandma and greatgranda have social security, homes they have owned outright for decades, grandma's previous husband's pension, and they've never done any work more stressful than be housewives. (previous husband had job stress which killed him with a heart attack at age 62.)
Boomer kids both have jobs without health insurance, mortgages, and between their kids and their jobs spend all their time in the car. Jobs include evening shift at the mall, where the shift ends at midnight but the worker often has to stay until 2 or 3 am making sure the store is ready to be opened the next day at 10. Kids are supposed to go to college to avoid this fate, but having grown up in non-college educated families with widescreen TVs in the mortgaged house, kids are getting stressed about getting into college, getting through college, and then having to pay for it. (This is the kind of family that holds high-school graduation parties with napkins and cake proclaiming, "You made it!") Life in the modern era is very, very difficult for those not inclined to an education.

These societies, largely in southeast and pacific asia hace very low levels of cancer and heart disease, a fraction of the obesity issues present in the west and longevity expectations rivaling ours by many years.

No, those of them that are in developing countries have lower life expectancies than the US.

I don't know about Japan and South Korea, but in Singapore, food is dirt cheap. There are food courts where you can eat a pretty good lunch for S$2, which is about the same fraction of Singapore's GDP per capita as US$2 in the United States. In my neighborhood you can buy sandwiches for $4-5, but bread and cold meat are packed with sodium, which Westerners almost universally overconsume, while rice is sodium-free and unprocessed poultry has half as much sodium as calories relative to RDI.

If anyone seriously proposes dotting 125th Street with food courts that sell reasonably healthy and fresh food for $2-3 a meal, I'll be all for it. The only problem is that McDonald's and Subway might try to torpedo it (long story short: Subway isn't healthy).

I don't have time right now to read the whole article, but I have two thoughts.

First, since part of the data is people's subjective description of their healt, I wonder how much of this disparity is due to increased expectations.

And second, I wonder how much of this difference is due to the fact that medicine is becoming increasingly better at keeping sick people alive.

What worries me is that people are reporting greater difficulty with basic tasks and activities than their predecessors.

The article mentions Baby Boomers are more likely to have trouble with climbing stairs or lifting 10 lbs than their parents did at the same age.

I'm sure rising expectations and advances in the management of chronic conditions have something to do with Baby Boomer's self-reported health, though.

Also, I think that decades of public health education have redefined our understanding of what constitutes a disease. For example, we're now much more aware of the medical dimension of mood disorders and substance abuse. Someone who struggles with depression today is more likely to count their condition as a form of ill-health than someone who had the same symptoms 20 years ago.

The problem is that a big mac, frys, and a coke taste alot better than rice and chicken to most people. And you can feed a family of five at Little Caesars for five bucks.

As Janet commented above, this is a bogus finding. I am a boomer. I had two grandfathers who died in their 50s, one of a massive heart attack and one of lung cancer (a life-long heavy smoker). My two grandmothers left to report in a survey lived to a ripe old age (83 and 95) and were pretty healthy till a few years before their deaths. My mother just died at 80 and my father is in Alzheimer's at 86. But noone was telling my grandparents about their blood pressure and cholesterol levels being too high, or that smoking was bad for them even though my grandfathers were very unhealthy by today's standards. My parents were aware of these issues in their old age, but not in their 50s. Sure they thought they were very healthy. Yet my dad had a massive stroke in his early 60s and my mom became debilitated by arthritis in her 60s. A survey about whether you think you're healthy is not the same as a study about whether you are healthy.

I agree that some of the apparent disparity is probably due to earlier diagnosis and changing expectations.

But what about the data that says that people are having more trouble performing specific activities like climbing stairs or lifting 10 lbs?

But what about the data that says that people are having more trouble performing specific activities like climbing stairs or lifting 10 lbs?

Well, again, these problems are self-reported, not something that's been objectively measured. As the article itself mentions, the idea of what constitutes "good health" at age 60 has changed.

Blood pressure, blood sugar, and blood cholesterol are all much more intensively monitored than they used to be, and in all cases, the threshhold for what is considered pathological has been lowered over the last few decades, sometimes more than once, to the extent that a healthy cardiovascular system is being defined out of existence.

I'm not dismissing the results of the survey, but I'd need a lot more empirical data to be really convinced.

I'm surprised. As one example, my parents smoked like chimneys, stressed out like crazy, ate all kinds of processed foods and red meat, and I do none of those things. A lot of my friends, too are baby boomers who are in better shape than their parents.

Just thought I would let you know about a new website dedicated to baby boomers called that your readers may be interested in. There are many nice sections (health, movies, finance, travel etc.) where you can meet new people as well as keep up on all the latest news, tips and goings on in the world. You guys should check it out if you feel so inclined. See ya.


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