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Are baby boomers healthier than previous generations?

During the first quarter of our lives, we usually look forward to our birthdays. Another year takes you closer to exciting milestones: becoming a teenager at 13, learning to drive at 16 and legally sipping on "adult" beverages at 21. By the mid-20s and onward, anticipation gradually turns to hesitation for many adults. Celebrations for one's 40th year are often festooned with black decorations. After that, birthday parties might be low-key affairs or disappear altogether.

National attention is fixated on one upcoming over-the-hill birthday. In 2011, the oldest members of the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) turn 65. With that, the largest adult population in the United States officially begins its march into old age. But the federal government isn't pulling out balloons and party whistles; it's sounding the alarm bells. Baby boomers will more than double the number of elderly people in the nation, and the healthcare system is far from prepared to manage the influx [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. A federal study estimates the United States is short around 29,000 geriatricians to support the spike in elderly patients [source: La Ganga].

Medical technology and improved nutrition have drastically extended our lifetimes. Old age in particular has lengthened for the average Joe. A century ago, people who reached 65 years old could survive about 12 more years. Today, that figure is close to 19 years [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. That means that roughly 71 million baby boomers who turn 65 in the coming years have two more decades ahead of them.

­Although boomers will likely outlive their grandparents, does that mean they're a healthier bunch? When comparing today's older adults to those a century ago, the results favor baby boomers. Thanks to vaccines and antibiotics, baby boomers are less likely to suffer from infectious diseases and acute illness. Chronic diseases (heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, for example) develop 10 to 25 years later in life [source: Kolata]. Disability rates have dropped, and the quality of life has improved.

But this doesn't tell the whole story. We know that boomers are smarter and wealthier, which should indicate improved health. But as a group, boomers might be in need of a reality checkup.

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Baby Boomers and Health: Not Picture Perfect

­In 1850, the average man had a normal body mass index (BMI) of 23. Fast forward to 2000, and the male frame elongated and ballooned to a BMI of 28.2, teetering on the brink of obesity [source: Kolata]. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults aged 40 to 59 -- aka baby boomers -- have the highest prevalence of obesity. Of that group, 40 percent of men and 41 percent of women were obese in 2007 [source: CDC]. Their parents, however, had a lower overall obesity rate.

In 2000, smoking cessation, diet and exercise could have prevented around 35 percent of the deaths in the United States [source: CDC]. Baby boomers get a gold star for their nonsmoking efforts but fail when it comes to the latter two health initiatives. Being overweight and obese drastically increases a person's chance of developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. It puts extra wear and tear on the body's muscles and joints and reduces mobility.

Recent statistics have initially confirmed this grim health trend. A survey sponsored by the National Institute on Aging examined the health status of 20,000 baby boomers between 51 and 56. Stacked up against the previous generation during the same age bracket, baby boomers lagged behind. The younger set actually reported the most consistent pain and chronic health conditions [source: National Institute on Aging]. Even with low-impact activities of climbing stairs, getting up from a chair and lifting their arms over their heads, baby boomers reported less mobility than their predecessors [source: The Washington Post]. In addition, boomers have a higher prevalence of alcoholism and psychiatric problems [source: Soldo et al].

How did the most educated and wealthiest generation of Americans to date allow its collective health to fall by the wayside? The American lifestyle has largely shifted from active to sedentary and from community-oriented to socially isolating. Adults experience more stress in their hectic daily lives, which breeds depression and health problems, such as hypertension and high blood pressure. The net result of those factors is poor health and chronic ailments.

Certainly, many older adults remain physically active and monitor their health closely. Data from the CDC also indicates strong participation in preventative healthcare, such as mammograms and cancer screenings. But as retirement looms on the horizon, baby boomers' health becomes even more crucial. Those extra years tacked on to life expectancy in the past century should be cause for celebration, not angst.

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Lots More Information

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Sources

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Lif­e Expectancy at Birth, 65 and 85 Years of Age." (March 11, 2009)http://205.207.175.93/HDI/TableViewer/tableView.aspx?ReportId=169
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The State of Aging and Health in America 2007." 2007. (March 11, 2009)http://www.cdc.gov/aging/pdf/saha_exec_summary_2007.pdf
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The State of Aging and Health in America 2007 Report." Reviewed Nov. 4, 2008. (March 11, 2009)http://www.cdc.gov/aging/saha.htm
  • ­Kolata, Gina. "So Big and Healthy Grandpa Wouldn't Even Know You." The New York Times. July 30, 2006. (March 11, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/30/health/30age.html
  • La Ganga, Maria L. "Healthcare system unprepared for aging boomers, study finds." Los Angeles Times. April 15, 2008. (March 11, 2009)http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/15/nation/na-health15
  • National Center for Health Statistics. "New CDC Study Finds No Increase in Obesity Among Adults; But Levels Still High." Nov. 28, 2007. (March 11, 2009)http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/07newsreleases/obesity.htm
  • National Institute on Aging. "Could Baby Boomers Be Approaching Retirement in Worse Shape Than Their Predecessors?" March 5, 2007. (March 11, 2009)http://www.nia.nih.gov/NewsAndEvents/PressReleases/20070305boomers.htm
  • Soldo, Beth J. "Cross-Cohort Differences in Health on the Verge of Retirement." National Bureau of Economic Research. Working Paper No. 1272. December 2006. (March 11, 2009)http://www.nber.org/papers/w12762
  • ­Stein, Rob. "Baby Boomers Appear to Be Less Healthy Than Parents." The Washington Post. April 20, 2007. (March 11, 2009)http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/19/AR2007041902458.html
  • The Washington Post. "Health Decline." 2007. (March 11, 2009)http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2007/04/20/GR2007042000111.html
  • Whitbourne, Susan Krauss and Willis, Sherry L. "The Baby Boomers Grow Up." Routledge. 2006. (March 11, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=EXWXSiNnZ10C