Like many baby boomers, 63-year-old Beth Thomas feels her age. Each passing year brings more aches and pains. Old injuries have started grumbling again. Fingers that were once supple are often stiff and sore.
“I’m an expert on pain,” says the Johnstown, Pa., horse trainer. “But I think I’m doing really well for my age. You just see me saying 'Ouch, ouch, ouch' as I move.”
Thomas does her best to stay active. She says she used to jog, but these days has to settle for long walks because of the toll running took on her knees and back.
Baby boomers may view aging as a thing that happens to someone else, but in reality, the more than 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 may be facing a creakier, sicker old age than their parents, according to a new report.
Despite advances in cancer treatment and life-saving, cholesterol-lowering statin medications to protect against cardiovascular disease, boomers are far less likely to say they are in excellent health compared to what people born between 1922 and 1943 reported when they were in the same age range, researchers from the West Virginia University School of Medicine reported Monday.
While that could possibly be put down to higher boomer expectations, the new report, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, finds that in a single generation the number who suffer from high cholesterol has more than doubled compared to the previous generation, as has the number who say they need the assistance of a cane or walker to get around.
“The message here is that we may not be the healthiest generation,” says the report’s lead author Dr. Dana E. King, a professor in the department of family medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. “And I think this may be a wake-up call to the baby boomers to change their lifestyles for the better and try to delay the kind of diseases and disability that seem to be coming at a higher rate than it did in our parents’ generation.”
King and his colleagues pored through data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) which included information from 1988 through 1994 on the so-called “Silent Generation” – those born between the two world wars – and data from 2007 through 2010 on the Baby Boom Generation.
The researchers found that just 13 percent of boomers reported they were in excellent health, as compared to 32 percent of their counterparts in the previous generation. Nearly 39 percent of boomers were obese as compared to 29 percent of their parents’ generation at the same age. More than half of boomers reported no regular physical activity, as compared to 17 percent of the previous generation.
The new report came as no surprise to doctors who treat patients from both generations.
Dr. Robert Cato blames most of the boomer ill health and disability on the obesity epidemic.
“Obesity makes you less functional,” says Cato, an associate professor of clinical medicine and chief of general internal medicine at the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. “Obese patients get more arthritis. They don’t walk as well. They have more back pain – and they just don’t feel as well.”
There was some good news in King’s report, however. Despite the drop in activity and the rises in disability, obesity, cholesterol, and blood pressure, boomers are living longer and suffering fewer heart attacks.
The decrease in heart attacks Cato and others attribute to advances in medicine, such as widespread use of statins and the decrease in smoking.
“We’ve saved people’s lives and they’ve clearly had fewer heart attacks,” says Dr. Amy Crawford-Faucher, a family medicine physician at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “But everything else [obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, inactivity] is getting worse.”
Crawford-Faucher fears that younger people will fare just as badly as the boomers since inactivity and obesity plague them as well. As for Thomas, she’s hoping to learn about her blood pressure and cholesterol levels at her first wellness exam in years and to get some help with the more wrenching of her pains.
“I accept the chronic ouchies,” she says. “But I’m looking for some relief from the pain. I don’t want to keep pumping Advil – that’s not good for your liver.”