Baby boomers may live longer, but their elders were healthier

At midlife, the nation’s 78 million baby boomers appear to be in worse health than the generation that preceded them, a new study finds.

Researchers from West Virginia University School of Medicine and the Medical University of South Carolina knew that American’s life expectancy has steadily improved, but they wondered whether that meant baby boomers were healthier than their parents or simply benefiting from better medical treatments.


To find out, they compared data from two sets of responses to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES. Baby boomers were between the ages of 46 and 64 (average age: 54.1) when they took the survey between 2007 and 2010. Their elders were in the same age range (average age: 54.5) when they took the survey between the years 1988 and 1994.

How did the baby boomers stack up? Not well.

Only 13.2% of boomers rated their own health as “excellent,” compared with 32% of those in the older group. Boomers were more likely to have high blood pressure (43% vs. 36.4%), high cholesterol (73.5% vs. 33.8%) and diabetes (15.5% vs. 12%). A full 38.7% of boomers surveyed were obese, compared with 29.4% of their elders. They also had a higher rate of cancer (10.6% vs. 9.5%) but the difference wasn’t big enough to be statistically significant.

Nearly 7% of boomers were using a “walking assist device,” 13.5% had a functional limitation of some kind and 13.8% were limited at work. For the older generation, those figures were only 3.3%, 8.8% and 10.1%, respectively.

Lifestyle factors weren’t in baby boomers’ favor either. Only 35% of boomers said they exercised regularly (compared with 49.9% in the older group) and more than half (52.2%) admitted that they had “no regular physical activity” (only 17.4% of the older group were that sedentary).

Moderate drinking was nearly twice as common among boomers (67.3% vs. 37.2%), though some evidence suggests this might be beneficial.

There were a few areas where baby boomers clearly did better than their elders. Only 21.3% of boomers were smokers when they took the survey, compared with 27.6% for those in the older group. Perhaps as a result, they were less likely to have emphysema (2.3% vs. 3.5%) or to have had a heart attack (3.6% vs. 5.3%).

But on the whole, the message to baby boomers wasn’t pretty:

“Despite their longer life expectancy over previous generations, US baby boomers have higher rates of chronic disease, more disability, and lower self-rated health than members of the previous generation at the same age,” the authors concluded.

You can read a summary of the study online here.

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