Baby boomers: not so healthy, not so cool

August 4, 2014
fat baby boomer

Rich, educated, privileged: baby boomers are often seen in this light. But how about fat, arthritic, and asthmatic? The huge generation born between 1946 and 1964 has always been special. It was the first to enjoy the benefits of vaccination and antibiotics, higher education, and upward mobility. Baby boomers led the sexual revolution and travelled widely. Now on the other side of 50 or 60, they typically see themselves as ‘younger’ and fitter than their parents were at the same age. A cool generation, still.

But are we kidding ourselves? Are boomers really fitter and healthier than our parents were? Some eye-catching data suggests boomers are in poor shape compared to their parents at the same age. The data comparing the two generations at mid-life comes from official health statistics collected and analysed by Dr Jennifer Buckley, formerly of the University of Adelaide, as part of a major project on baby boomers. They were presented in a talk by Professor Graeme Hugo, a leading demographer, at a recent forum in Canberra held by the Council on the Ageing (COTA). The startling finding was on obesity. Among baby boomers, 26 percent were obese in their 50s compared to 12 percent of the pre-war generation at the same age.

But the boomers’ poor showing doesn’t stop there. On almost every health indicator a higher proportion of boomers was sicker than were their parents at the same age. In mid-life, 9 percent of boomers already suffered diabetes compared to 3 per cent of their parents. Double the proportion of boomers than the pre-war generation suffered asthma. Even hearing loss was a bigger problem for the mid-life boomers than it had been for the older generation. “It was all that loud rock music,” Dr Buckley told me. One-third of the boomers suffered from arthritis compared to only one-quarter of their parents. High cholesterol and back problems were also more prevalent among the mid-life boomers. And a higher proportion drank alcohol at a risky level.

How could the generation that invented jogging have come to this? Fat, arthritic, asthmatic diabetic, and drinking too much? Well, it’s important to point out one piece of good news. Only 18 percent of the boomers smoked at mid-life compared to 24 percent of the pre-war generation at the same age. As a result, boomers have benefited from the big decline in coronary deaths since the late 1960s. Boomers live, longer, a lot longer. A male baby boomer, for example, who reached 50 can expect to live till his early 80s, almost ten years longer than a man who turned 50 in the early 1970s. But the medical breakthroughs that have rescued baby boomers from premature death by heart attack or stroke may leave them living with chronic illnesses and disabilities. Boomers survive – but in what shape?

Professor Hugo told the COTA conference: “Baby boomers, more than previous generations, have adopted sedentary life styles and have a higher incidence of obesity than any previous generation.” A major health survey, the North West Adelaide Health Study, that tracks baby boomers over time, found 61 percent were not getting enough exercise. Compared to the older generation, we get less “incidental activity” – we drive more, use dishwashers rather than wash up, and are more likely to pay a cleaner to vacuum our house. “If baby boomers enter old age in poorer health than previous generations, “not only are there so many of them, they’re going to be sicker,” Professor Hugo told me, “and that’s a double whammy for our health system.”

But there’s some dispute between experts over the relative health status of boomers and their parents because the data is based on self-reports of health, not independent medical tests. So it remains the $64 million question as to whether the extra years baby boomers will enjoy will be healthy ones or marred by sickness and disability. Even so, the figures on obesity are hard to ignore. They make it urgent to find better ways to promote healthier diets and exercise among people in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

I don’t know about you but among my circle there are baby boomers with big guts and heart stents; and others who go running four times a week. There are food fascists who’ll never let a cake crumb past their mouth, and brunch-goers who can’t resist the Big Breakfast. There are teetotallers, and people who drink a bottle of wine a night. I don’t remember such divergence in my parents’ generation. It’s always a stretch to generalise about generations. But my sense that baby boomers are hugely diverse, even more than previous generations, on health as in other areas, is borne out by Professor Hugo. “Baby boomers are the first really diverse generation,” he told me.

More than one-third are migrants compared to 20 percent of the older generation. More are entering old age without a partner –  34 percent compared to 19 percent of the pre-war group; and 14 percent of boomers don’t have children compared to 9 percent of the old generation. Most significantly, a higher proportion will enter old age as renters, 19.3 percent compared to 16.9 percent. Generalisations about baby boomer wealth and privilege disguise a large and potentially vulnerable sub-group. Spouse, children, home ownership have been the pillars of our pension, retirement and aged care systems. But a sizeable number of boomers will be entering old age lacking these traditional supports, and it seems, in poor health. Nothing cool about that.

Do you agree/disagree  the older generation was in many ways healthier?  Please Comment.

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