UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania — Baby boomers are more likely to live with many chronic conditions than previous generationsaccording to a new study from Penn State and Texas State University.
The study authors warn that the rising rate of multiple chronic health conditions (multimorbidity) among older Americans poses a real threat to the health of the nation. If continued, this trend will almost certainly put increased pressure on the well-being of the elderly, medical infrastructure and federal insurance systems. Similarly, the number of Americans over 65 is expected to increase by 50% by 2050.
The researchers note that this is not the first study to indicate greater deterioration of health in older people today. Going forward, they would like to see their findings help inform new policies addressing this national issue.
“Even before the Covid-19 pandemicwe were starting to see declines in life expectancy among middle-aged Americans, a trend reversal of more than a century,” says Steven Haas, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, in a statement. “Furthermore, over the past 30 years, population health in the United States has lagged behind that of other high-income countries, and our results suggest that the United States will likely continue to further behind our peers.”
The study authors analyzed data on adults aged 51 and over originally collected by the Health and Retirement Study, which is a nationally representative survey of aging Americans. Multimorbidity was measured by looking for nine chronic conditions: heart diseasehypertension, stroke, Diabetesarthritis, lung disease, cancer (excluding skin cancer), high depressive symptoms, and cognitive impairment. Variations in the specific conditions leading to generational differences in multimorbidity have also been investigated.
Baby boomers have worse health than Great Depression-era Americans
Ultimately, the researchers concluded that older generations born more recently are more likely to live with more chronic conditions and to develop these problems earlier in life.
“For example, when comparing people born between 1948 and 1965 – called baby boomers – to those born during the last years of the Great Depression (between 1931 and 1941) at similar ages,” adds Professor Haas, “baby boomers had a greater number of chronic health problems. Baby boomers also reported two or more chronic health conditions at a younger age.
Notably, sociodemographic factors also seemed to affect the risk of multimorbidity among all generations. Examples include race and ethnicity, whether the person was born in the United States, childhood socioeconomic circumstances, and childhood health.
The most common conditions seen in adults with multimorbidity (all generations combined) were arthritis and hypertension. Additionally, some collected evidence suggests that high depressive symptoms and diabetes contributed to the observed generational multimorbidity risk differences.
The study authors say there are multiple potential explanations for these findings.
“Later generations had access to more advanced modern medicine for a longer period of their life, so we can expect them to enjoy better health than those born in previous generations,” concludes Nicholas Bishop, assistant professor at Texas State University. “While this is partially true, advanced medical treatments may allow individuals to live with multiple chronic conditions that would once have proven fatal, potentially increasing the likelihood of a person suffering from multimorbidity.”
Professor Bishops adds that today’s older people have been ‘more exposed’ to health risk factors like obesity. Also, health problems are more likely to be diagnosed in older people these days due to improvements in medical technology.
The study is published in gerontology journals.
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