Baby Boomers' Overall Health Worse Than Their Parents'

Steven Fox

February 04, 2013

When it comes to self-assessment of overall health, today's baby boomers do not fare very well compared with the previous generation, according to results from an analysis of large surveys that polled both generations.

Dana E. King, MD, from the West Virginia University School of Medicine, Morgantown, and colleagues report the results of their analysis in a research letter published online February 4 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

"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 write.

Dr. King and colleagues analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, focusing on middle-aged respondents (aged 46 - 64 years) from 2 periods: 1988 to 1994 and 2007 to 2010.

The researchers compared the 2 cohorts with regard to their self-reported health status, functional and work disability, healthy lifestyle characteristics, and whether they were affected by chronic diseases.

"Overall health status was lower in baby boomers, with 13.2% reporting 'excellent' health compared with 32% of individuals in the previous generation (P < .001)," the researchers report.

As to comparative disability, more than twice as many baby boomers used walking assist devices (6.9% vs 3.3%), more were limited in their work by disability (13.8% vs 10.1%), and 13.5% vs 8.8% were coping with some type of functional limitation.

In addition, more baby boomers are obese compared with the previous generation (38.7% vs 29.4%), and they reported exercising significantly less often (35.0% vs 49.9% exercised >12 times per month). In fact, more than half the baby boomer respondents said they engaged in no regular physical activity (52.2% vs 17.4%).

Moderate drinking was more common among the boomers compared with the previous generation (67.3% vs 37.2%).

Hypertension, too, was more common (43.0% vs 36.4%), as well as the percentage of individuals who were taking antihypertensive medications (35.4% vs 23.2%).

Ten times as many boomers report receiving cholesterol-lowering drugs as the previous generation (25.9% vs 1.5%), and nearly twice as many report being treated for diabetes (11.3% vs 6.2%).

Conversely, fewer of the baby boomers were smokers at the time surveyed (21.3% vs 27.6%) and 2.3% of boomers reported having been diagnosed with emphysema compared with 3.5% of respondents in the previous generation.

Baby boomers were also less likely to have experienced myocardial infarctions (3.6% vs 5.3%).

The researchers used logical regression to control for demographic changes between the 2 cohorts (age, sex, race, and socioeconomic status). "The results indicated, after adjustment, that baby boomers remained more likely than the previous generation to have diabetes (odds ratio [OR], 1.46; 95% CI, 1.16-1.83); hypertension (OR, 1.38; 95% CI, 1.14-1.67); and hypercholesterolemia (OR, 5.94; 95% CI, 4.94-7.14)," they write.

The authors conclude, "Given the link between positive healthy lifestyles and subsequent health in this age group, the present study demonstrates a clear need for policies that expand efforts at prevention and healthy lifestyle promotion in the baby boomer generation."

This study was supported in part by grants from the National Institutes of Health. The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA Intern Med. Published online February 4, 2013. Abstract