UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Baby boomers are more likely to live with numerous chronic health conditions than earlier generations, according to new research from Penn State and Texas State University.
Study authors warn that the growing rate of multiple chronic health conditions (multimorbidity) among older Americans represents a real health threat to the nation. If it continues, this trend will almost certainly place increased strain on the well-being of older adults, medical infrastructures, and federal insurance systems. On a related note, the amount of Americans over 65 is projected to increase by an astounding 50 percent by 2050.
Researchers note that this isn’t the first study to indicate greater health deterioration among today’s older adults. Moving forward, they would like to see their findings help inform new policies addressing this nationwide issue.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were beginning to see declines in life expectancy among middle-aged Americans, a reversal of more than a century long trend,” says Steven Haas, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, in a statement. “Furthermore, the past 30 years has seen population health in the U.S. fall behind that in other high-income countries, and our findings suggest that the U.S. is likely to continue to fall further behind our peers.”
Study authors analyzed data on adults aged 51 years and older originally collected by the Health and Retirement Study, which is a a nationally representative survey of aging Americans. Multimorbidity was measured by looking out for nine chronic conditions: heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, cancer (excluding skin cancer), high depressive symptoms, and cognitive impairment. Variations in the specific conditions driving generational differences in multimorbidity were also investigated.
Baby Boomers in worse health than Great Depression-era Americans?
Ultimately, researchers concluded that more recently born generations of older adults are more likely to live with more chronic conditions, and develop those issues earlier in life.
“For example, when comparing those born between 1948-65 – referred to as Baby Boomers — to those born during the later years of the Great Depression (between 1931 and 1941) at similar ages,” Prof. Haas adds, “Baby Boomers exhibited a greater number of chronic health conditions. Baby Boomers also reported two or more chronic health conditions at younger ages.”
Notably, sociodemographic factors also appeared to affect the risk of multimorbidity among all generations. Examples include race and ethnicity, whether the person was born in the U.S., childhood socioeconomic situations, and childhood health.
The most common conditions seen in adults with multimorbidity (across all generations) were arthritis and hypertension. Additionally, some collected evidence suggests both high depressive symptoms and diabetes contributed to the observed generational multimorbidity risk differences.
Study authors say there are multiple potential explanations for these findings.
“Later-born generations have had access to more advanced modern medicine for a greater period of their lives, therefore we may expect them to enjoy better health than those born to prior generations,” concludes Nicholas Bishop, assistant professor at Texas State University. “Though this is partially true, advanced medical treatments may enable individuals to live with multiple chronic conditions that once would have proven fatal, potentially increasing the likelihood that any one person experiences multimorbidity.”
Prof. Bishops adds that today’s older adults have had “greater exposure” to health risk factors such as obesity. Also, health issues are more likely to be diagnosed in older adults nowadays thanks to improvements in medical technology.
The study is published in The Journals of Gerontology.