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Medical study knocks boomers' reputation for good health

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Baby boomers, long thought of as a robust, lively lot, are actually in poorer health than their parents' generation.

That's what a recent study found, one authored in part by two doctors with West Virginia University.

It compared the health of baby boomers, that post-war generation born between 1946 and 1964, with the generation that came before them.

"The baby boomers have a reputation for being active, health conscious," said Dana King, the study's lead author and a professor of family medicine at WVU. "But that's not what we felt like we were seeing in our practices, so we embarked on this study."

Researchers mined a pile of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination, a comprehensive survey used to track and assess the health of Americans since 1971.

They focused on individuals aged 46 to 64 at the time they were surveyed, looking at their health status, lifestyle characteristics and chronic disease. It was the first study to compare the generations directly, with an evidence-based approach. The findings, published online Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, were surprising to its authors and many in the field:

Baby boomers have higher levels of hypertension, diabetes and cholesterol than their parents. They're more likely to be disabled. Twice as many baby boomers reported they were in poor health and only 13 percent reported that they were in excellent health, compared to 33 percent of people in the last generation.

The boomers have improved on their parents in some key health indicators: they're less likely to smoke or have emphysema or have suffered a heart attack.

But even though boomers have a longer life expectancy than their parents - no doubt the product of advances in medicine - the study shows that they're not as healthy through their lifetime. Boomers may be expected to live to be 78 (a generation ago life expectancy was around 75) but they're doing it with a lower quality of life.

Twice as many people from the baby boom generation have to use a cane or walker to get around.

King is preaching the virtues of exercise and healthy eating, as well as preventative health care, to ward off ill health as the boomers age.

"If that's not done, I think you'll become not the healthiest generation but the pill generation," he said, referring to the amount of medication they'll need to keep up their health in the coming years.

The research comes on the cusp of the boomers' descent into retirement and old age. The oldest of the baby boom generation turned 65 in 2011 and, according to the AARP, will reach retirement age at a rate of about 8,000 a day for the next 18 years.     

There has long been hand wringing in the health care industry over the imminent strain on the health care system, as this massive generation requires more and more health care.

"It's the sheer volume of how many people fall in that category," said Lisa Marsh, clinical director in health affairs for Blue Cross and Blue Shield. "Now to know that they're not as healthy puts us in a panic situation. How do we manage the health care of these people?"

The problem is especially acute in West Virginia, which has the oldest population aside from Florida. Census figures show that more than 16 percent of West Virginians are 65 or older, compared with a little more than 13 percent nationally. And projections show that by 2030, nearly a quarter of West Virginians will be older than 65.

And Tom Hunter, associate state director for AARP West Virginia, said the aging population in West Virginia faces unique challenges because so many people live in rural areas.

"It's an industry in Florida; they basically built and developed around attracting retirees," he said. "In the state we have to address some issues to make livable communities for seniors."

On the AARP's agenda for the upcoming legislative session are some measures that would promote "complete streets." They want more streets with sidewalks that are easy for a pedestrian to navigate, and increases in public transportation. Such a measure failed to pass a vote on the floor last session, but Hunter is hopeful.

The idea behind advocating for more pedestrian opportunities is one part a way to ease seniors' dependence on others for transportation, and one part giving them opportunities for physical activity.

"Physical fitness - that's the key to keeping them well," Hunter said.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.


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