Baby boomers have more chronic illness and disability than their parents, as their sedentary habits and expanding girth offset the modern medicine that enables them to live longer, a study said.
Baby boomers, the 78 million Americans born from 1946 through 1964, engage in less physical activity, are more overweight and have higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol, according to a study released Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The study, among the first to compare the generations, shows that baby boomers aren't as healthy and active as most would believe, said Dana E. King, the lead author. They become sicker earlier in life than the previous generation, are more limited in what they can do at work and are more likely to need a cane or walker, the research found.
"The results of this study say you become sicker sooner and you are burdened with chronic disease and are taking medications, yet you live longer," said King, a professor of family medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown. "There needs to be a new emphasis and continued attention to programs to improve healthy lifestyles in this age group."
Researchers in the study analyzed data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2007 to 2010, looking at baby boomers, and from 1988 to 1994, evaluating the previous generation. They focused on people ages 46 to 64 years during the survey periods. The researchers compared the two groups' lifestyle, health status, presence of chronic disease and disability.
Almost 40 percent of the boomers are obese, compared with 29 percent a generation ago. Fifty-two percent said they got no regular physical activity versus 17 percent of their parents, according to the study.
The results are a "wake-up call," said Susan Reinhard, senior vice president of AARP's Public Policy Institute in Washington.
"We have to fight to live well, not just live long," she said.
The mortality rate of those age 59 in 2005, the leading edge of the baby boom, was 14 percent lower than 59-year-olds in 1997, according to a previous study cited by the authors.
While fewer baby boomers were smoking or had emphysema than their parents' generation, more had high blood pressure and high cholesterol and were taking medicines to treat those conditions, according to the study. Reinhard said the cholesterol finding may be skewed because doctors didn't routinely test for cholesterol 20 years ago.
King said more studies are needed to find how to improve boomers' health. Previous generations grew up with fewer electronics and labor-saving devices, and walked or rode bikes more regularly.
"Do we need more availability of fitness classes at work? Do we need more bicycle lanes in more cities?" he said.
"What is the most effective way? We don't have the answer to that question to both motivate and make an impact on the healthy lifestyle profile of this generation."