Boomers live longer, but sicker, than parents

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Despite a growing number of health clubs and diet and exercise trends, baby boomers aren't nearly as healthy as their parents were, according to recently published research.

Boomers have more diabetes, higher blood pressure and higher cholesterol than their parents did at the same time in their lives,according to the report in February's issue of JAMA Internal Medicine. The findings are based on data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers compared people 46 to 64 between 2007 and 2010 with people in the same age range between 1988 and 1994. The average age of the boomer group was 54.

Seventy-eight million children were born between 1946 and 1964, the "baby boom" generation. Boomers comprise 26 percent of the U.S. population.

Only 13 percent of boomers, compared with 32 percent of the older generation, said their health was "excellent." More than twice as many boomers (7 percent vs. 3 percent) said they used a "walking assist device" such as a cane or a walker. Health problems limit them at work, said 14 percent of boomers, but only 9 percent of their parents reported problems when they were in the same age group.

Boomers were more likely to be obese (39 percent vs. 29 percent) and to suffer from diabetes (16 percent vs. 12 percent), hypertension (43 percent vs. 36 percent), high cholesterol (74 percent vs. 34 percent) and cancer (11 percent vs. 10 percent).

Diabetes and hypertension (high blood pressure) are ailments exacerbated by obesity.

The study is by five researchers from West Virginia University School of Medicine and the Medical University of South Carolina, led by Dana E. King of West Virginia's Department of Family Medicine.

The results surprised Dr. King: "I didn't expect [boomers] to have such a big change in disability and obesity."

Lousy health habits appear to be the chief reason why.

Only 35 percent of boomers, compared to 50 percent of their parents' generation, reported exercising at least 12 times a month. Fifty-two percent of boomers, but only 17 percent of the older group, said they got no exercise at all. Two-thirds of boomers, but just 37 percent of their parents, reported "moderate" drinking.

But although boomer health is worse, they're living longer. In 2008, life expectancy for women was 80.6 years for women, 75.6 years for men, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1988, it was 78.3 years for women, 71.4 years for men.

The mortality rate of those age 59 in 2005 was 14 percent lower than for 59-year-olds in 1997, the study found.

This indicates the link between obesity and a risk of early death isn't as great as some have feared, said Andrew Adams, an internal medicine specialist at West Penn Medical Associates and an assistant professor of medicine at Temple University.

"People are living longer sicker," Dr. Adams said. "Boomers are getting fatter, but they don't seem to be dying because of it."

People live longer despite worse health because advances in medicines and medical technology have exceeded, so far, the harm done by poor health habits, Dr. Adams said. But this isn't a good public health outcome, he said. The most alarming finding is the big increase in number of people reporting impaired mobility. Causes include chronic arthritis, stroke, chronic neurological disease and morbid obesity.

"If you need a device to get around, that's a big quality-of-life issue," Dr. Adams said.

Deteriorating boomer health is also a major economic issue. It drives up health care costs and disability payments, diminishes performance at work and forces many to retire early, depriving their employers of their experience and expertise.

The health news isn't all bad. Only 21 percent of boomers are smokers, compared to 28 percent of the older generation. According to the National Cancer Institute, cigarette smoking is associated with a large number of different cancers and other chronic diseases and "unequivocally contains human carcinogens."

Only 2.3 percent of boomers, compared to 3.5 percent of the older generation, suffer from emphysema, a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in which the air sacs in the lungs are gradually destroyed, causing shortness of breath. The principal cause is long-term exposure to airborne irritants, chiefly tobacco smoke.

Only 4 percent of boomers have suffered a heart attack, compared with 5 percent of their parents at the same age.

Too much cholesterol increases a person's risk of developing heart disease. But the big rise in very high levels of cholesterol in the blood (hypercholesterolemia) isn't as alarming as it appears, Dr. Adams said. Prior to 1988, "no one would have looked for high cholesterol" because doctors didn't know then how dangerous it could be, and there was then no cure for it, he said. Too much cholesterol increases a person's risk of developing heart disease. Now that the dangers are better known and can be treated, doctors pay much more attention.

"You find more of what you look for," Dr. Adams said.

The study doesn't explain why boomer health is worse. Most physicians think it's because the generation is more sedentary.

"I don't think [the jump in obesity] is because we're eating more, [but rather] because more of us sit in chairs all day," Dr. Adams said. "Pittsburgh used to be a blue-collar town. It isn't anymore. Our parents were much more active."

In 1960, about half of private-industry jobs in the United States -- jobs such as farming, mining, construction and manufacturing -- involved some kind of physical activity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, fewer than 20 percent do.

Americans today also are more likely to drive to and from work than to walk or take public transportation.

As a consequence, Americans burn 120 to 140 fewer calories each day than Americans did half a century ago, according to researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. That's enough to explain the weight Americans have gained since 1960, the Pennington researchers calculated in a 2011 study.

About two-thirds of Americans are overweight; 35.7 percent are obese, according to the CDC. In 1960, only a third of adults were overweight, just 9.7 percent were obese, according to a study for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Adult Americans expend about the same amount of energy in their leisure activities now as they did in 1960, the Pennington researchers found. But as more children eschew playing outside to watch television and play video games, child obesity rates are skyrocketing.

If everybody got the 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week the American Council on Exercise recommends, that would be enough to burn off the extra weight sedentary lifestyles have caused people to pack on, the Pennington researchers estimated. But only about 25 percent of do.

Exercise "needs to have a high priority in your personal life," Dr. King said. "People should just do everything they can to be active and eat healthy. It would make such a dramatic difference."


Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476.


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