but those extra years may be unhealthy.
Each generation is supposed to be healthier than the last, right? After all, we are living longer. According to current estimates, the average life expectancy of males born in 2010 is more than 11 year higher than those born in 1970—increasing from 56 years to nearly 68 years. Females have a life expectancy 12 years higher, expecting to live to more than 73 years of age.
But according to a couple recent studies, even though we may be living longer, those extra years are not necessarily enjoyable. In fact, researchers suggest that the baby boomer generation is in worse health than their parents were at the same stage in life, and that their last years may be spent in chronic pain and with physical and mental disabilities.
What can you do now to increase your odds of enjoying your final years of life?
Baby Boomers Not as Healthy As Their Parents
Researchers from the West Virginia University School of Medicine analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination survey (NHANES) between 1988-1994 and 2007-2010. They focused on respondents who were 46-64 years old during either period. They then compared these individuals in regard to their health status, functional and work disability, healthy lifestyle characteristics, and presence of chronic disease.
Noting that “baby boomers” include those born between 1946 and 1964, the results of the study showed the following:
- Only 13 percent of the baby boomers reported being in “excellent” health in middle age, compared with 32 of the previous generation at the same stage of life.
- About 39 percent of the baby boomers were obese, compared to 29 percent in the previous generation.
- About 11.3 percent of baby boomers had diabetes, compared to 6.2 percent of the previous generation.
- More than twice as many baby boomers walked with a cane or walker, compared to the previous generation.
- More baby boomers were limited in their work by disability (13.8 percent vs. 10.1 percent).
- Baby boomers were less likely to get regular exercise. Whereas over 52 percent of the previous generation exercised about three times a week, now, only about 18 percent of baby boomers did.
- Baby boomers were more likely to have high cholesterol and high blood pressure.
“I was surprised by the magnitude of the change,” said Dana King, the study’s lead author. “I suspected the current baby boomers would not be much healthier or maybe the same, but I didn’t expect them to have such a big change in disability and obesity.”
There was some good news. Baby boomers don’t smoke as much as their parents did, and are therefore less likely to have lung disease or emphysema. They were also less likely to have a heart attack.
Longer Life Not Necessarily Better
Researchers in this study also noted that baby boomers are living longer, but that the extra years may be a mixed blessing.
“From somewhat of a public health standpoint we’ve actually had a bad scenario,” King said. “You live longer, but those extra years you bought—you’re sick.”
A 2012 study said as much, when the giant Global Burden of Disease study was published in the journal Lancet. Researchers from the University of Washington, the Harvard School of Public Health, and elsewhere gauged people’s health in 187 countries, and found increasing rates of high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. The findings showed that more people are living longer, but many spend those extra years dealing with back pain, dementia, depression, and broken hips.
“The biggest contributor to the global health burden isn’t premature (deaths), but chronic diseases, injuries, mental health conditions, and all the bone and joint diseases,” said Christopher Murray, one of the study authors and director of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Some Tips for Aging Well
Most of us know that eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, managing stress, getting enough sleep, and avoiding smoking are some of the key things we can do to increase our odds of actually enjoying our final years of life. Here are a few others you may not have thought about that could help you stay healthy and active for years to come.
- Be grateful. It’s natural to feel a deeper sense of loss and grief the older we get, as we lose people, things, and abilities. Focusing on these too long can lead to depression, however, which can increase risk of other health problems. Try keeping a gratitude journal and list the things you’re grateful for twice a week to help you remember your blessings and keep your mood up. Studies have shown that cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” is linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, and higher long-term satisfaction with life.
- Find meaning in life. This can become more difficult as we grow older. The kids grow up and leave the house, we may retire or lose our jobs, or may find that we aren’t as fulfilled anymore from the same profession. Healthy aging, however, requires that we continue to find meaning and purpose in life. Realize that this can change over time, and don’t be afraid to try new things. Get involved in your community, volunteer, take a class, join a club, try a new hobby, learn to play a musical instrument, travel, or get involved in other activities that get you excited about life again.
- Laugh. Studies have shown that laughter is great for our health. It can increase feel-good endorphins in the brain, help us better manage pain, promote feelings of well being, and even relax blood vessels and protect against heart disease. Attend a comedy night, watch a funny movie, get together with fun friends, or attend a laughing yoga class—make a point to have fun more often!
- Maintain social connections. Isolation kills, but staying connected can get more difficult as we get older. Career changes, retirement, illness, death, and moving can all take us away from close friends and relatives. Yet it’s important to continue to find ways to socialize. As you lose people close to you, make a point to find new friends. Exercise with your neighbor, join a new club, volunteer, find support groups, and call and email family regularly.
- Keep your brain sharp. Are you still curious? Do you enjoy being creative? If you’re missing these things in your life, it’s time to renew your desire to learn. Staying mentally sharp as we get older involves continuing to challenge the brain with new things. Studies show that learning a new hobby, instrument, or skill is key to keeping the brain young, as is spending time around younger people, doing old things in new ways (try a new recipe for dinner, or take a different route to your favorite restaurant), or otherwise getting out of your comfort zone helps strengthen the connections in the brain.
Do you have other tips for aging well? Please share your thoughts.
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“Baby Boomers’ Health Worse Than Past Generations: Study,” Huffington Post, February 6, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/07/aging-boomers-health_n_2634065.html.
WVU Healthcare and West Virginia University Health Sciences (2013, February 5). Baby boomers in worse health than their parents. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 28, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2013/02/130205143330.htm.
Steven Fox, “Baby Boomers’ Overall Health Worse Than Their Parents’,” Medscape Medical News, February 4, 2013, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/778748.
Deborah Kotz, “People are living longer but with more disability,” The Boston Globe, December 13, 2012, http://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2012/12/13/people-are-living-longer-worldwide-but-with-more-illness-and-disability/SSmAEToMQNmWxfyz5d0GlO/story.html.
“Study: People worldwide living longer, but sicker,” USA Today, December 13, 2012, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2012/12/13/people-global-diseases/1766831/.
John Tierney, “A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day,” The New York Times, November 21, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/science/a-serving-of-gratitude-brings-healthy-dividends.html?_r=0.
James Gorman, “Scientists Hint at Why Laughter Feels So Good,” NY Times, September 13, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/science/14laughter.html.
Joanna Saisan, Melinda Smiht, Jeanne Segal, and Monika White, “Staying Healthy Over 50,” Helpguide.org, May 2013, http://www.helpguide.org/life/healthy_aging_seniors_aging_well.htm.