Are boomers less healthy than forebears?
The oldest baby boomers report more health problems than their parents did at that age.
WASHINGTON -- As the first wave of baby boomers edges toward retirement, a growing body of evidence suggests that they may be the first generation to enter their golden years in worse health than their parents. While not definitive, the data sketch a startlingly different picture than the popular image of health-obsessed workout fanatics who know their antioxidants from their trans fats and look 10 years younger than their age.
Boomers are healthier in some important ways -- they are much less likely to smoke, for example -- but large surveys are consistently finding that they tend to describe themselves as less hale and hearty than their forebears did at the same age. They are more likely to report difficulty climbing stairs, getting up from a chair and doing other routine activities, as well as more chronic problems such as high cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes.
"We're seeing some very powerful evidence all pointing to parallel findings," said Mark Hayward, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. "The trend seems to be that people are not as healthy as they approach retirement as they were in older generations. It's very disturbing."
Other troubling trends
While cautioning that the data are just starting to emerge, researchers say the findings track with several unhealthy trends, notably the obesity epidemic. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and those extra pounds make joints wear out more quickly, boost cholesterol and blood pressure, and raise the risk of a host of debilitating health problems. And despite all those gym memberships, baby boomers tend to be less physically active than their parents and grandparents, their daily routines often dominated by desk jobs and the drive to and from work.
"A lot of what we visualize about the baby boomers are the people who went to college -- the highly educated group that gets all the attention. They're the cultural icon," said David Weir, an economist at the University of Michigan, noting that studies have shown that better-educated people tend to have more healthful lifestyles and better access to health care. "But not everyone went to college, and not everyone is engaging in these healthful activities."
Can be a struggle
Even those who do try to take care of themselves are not always entirely successful. Take Larry Kirkland, a 57-year-old sculptor who lives in Washington, D.C. Kirkland walks and swims regularly to stay in shape, watches what he eats, and fights to keep his weight down. Ask him about his health, and Kirkland will tell you that it's good. Well, pretty good.
There's his blood pressure, which has been high for years. He takes medication to keep it under control. His cholesterol jumped too, requiring another pill to keep that in check. Then his blood sugar started going up, prompting his doctor to remind him that he really should drop at least 10 pounds if he wants to avoid diabetes.
"There are the creeping aches and pains. I dislocated my shoulder once, and that continues to bug me. I have knees that decide to be wobbly on occasion. I know that as you get older things tend to begin to fall apart," Kirkland said, adding that he gets fever blisters and his psoriasis flares up when he is stressed.