New concerns about baby boomer health

The “baby boomer” generation of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush is not doing well. No, it’s not doing well at all, compared with the previous generation.

This isn’t just my opinion.

Researchers from the West Virginia School of Medicine recently analyzed data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

The NHANES survey began in the 1960s. It assesses the health of adults and children in the United States. The survey combines interviews and physical exams.

For the new study, researchers looked at NHANES data for middle-aged men and women–ages 46 through 64–from two different generations. The first group of men and women hit middle age between 1988 and 1994. The second group, the boomers, hit middle age 20 years later, between 2007 and 2010.

And here’s some of what the researchers found…

Despite a longer life expectancy, baby boomers have higher rates of chronic disease and disability. Plus, they consider themselves in poorer health than the previous generation. 

This is striking, given that the boomers “benefitted” from the government’s campaigns against smoking, fats, calories, salt, and alcohol. Somehow, the older generation got along just fine–even better than the boomers–without nanny government interference!  

The differences were striking. One part of the NHANES survey is a report on self-health. You basically rate your own health.

Only 13 percent of the baby boomers reported “excellent” health. By comparison, about two-thirds of men and women from the previous generation reported “excellent” health! Of course, as people age they generally report more medical problems. But the study took this factor into account for both generations.

In addition, more than twice as many baby boomers used assisted walking devices. And about 50 percent more baby boomers were limited in their work by disability.

More baby boomers were obese at middle age, as well. About 40 percent of them compared to 30 percent of the older generation.

Plus, they reported exercising less often. Only about 35 percent of boomers exercised in middle age, versus 50 percent in the previous generation. In fact, more than half the baby boomers said they engaged in no regular physical activity at all. Only 17 percent of the older generation admitted to this.

And guess what else?

Nearly twice as many boomers at middle age had diabetes compared to the generation before. Plus, more boomers had high blood pressure and high cholesterol in middle age as well. And more of them took high blood pressure and cholesterol meds.

In fact, 20 times as many boomers took cholesterol-lowering drugs as the previous generation. That’s no surprise, given the government-industrial-medical complex’s never-ending war on cholesterol.

But if high cholesterol is so bad. And if 20 times more boomers were taking drugs to lower it, why is heart disease still the nation’s leading killer?

The authors conclude, “Given the link between positive healthy lifestyles and subsequent health in this age group, the present study demonstrates a clear need for policies that expand efforts at prevention and healthy lifestyle promotion in the baby boomer generation.”

Instead of seeing the obvious failure of government health recommendations, the authors recommend “doubling down” on their faulty approaches. It’s really not surprising that their approaches didn’t work. Their recommendations, in most cases, aren’t based on real science!

There is one big glaring hole in the new study…

The researchers do not address the issue of baby boomer stress.

The older generation is much smaller than the baby boomer generation. These men and women are now retired. And they each have three or four baby boomers working to help support them through the government’s inefficient Social Security and Medicare subsidies.

Most also have employer-sponsored fixed benefit pensions. These provide guaranteed payments until death. Baby boomers, on the other hand, have defined contribution plans. If anything at all. With these plans, boomers contribute to and manage their own funds. They must try to achieve “their number” and hope they can survive in retirement. In fact, the very concept of retirement may well be a thing of the past.

Robert William Fogel, the Nobel-prize winning scholar in economics, argues that the very concept of retirement will never be an arithmetic possibility for most baby boomers.

Just about the only boomers who will get guaranteed benefits are government workers and public employee union members. The taxpayers subsidize these benefits. The vast majority of the citizens, however, can’t afford to buy the same benefits for themselves after paying their taxes.

Many boomers still support their grown children. And they also help to support their parents as they get closer to “retirement age” themselves.

There used to be some “down time” when today’s retirees were middle-aged. Work stopped when people went home on weekends and evenings. And on vacation. 

Is it any surprise the study found baby boomers drank more alcohol than their elders did? But, maybe that’s actually one thing boomers have going for them, given the research that moderate drinking helps decrease heart disease. In my view, this probably occurs because moderate drinking–instead of some magic bullet anti-oxidant like resveratrol–also reduces stress.

The study also showed a decrease in the number of smokers from the previous generation. And only about two percent of boomers had emphysema. Compared with four percent from the previous generation. Emphysema is largely a smoking related disease. So it is good to see that go down along with smoking. But if smoking is so bad, why is this non-smoking generation so much sicker overall?

And I have always held with the evidence that light smoking–less than a half-a-pack of cigarettes or one to two cigars per day–doesn’t adversely affect your health. But something to consider is a recent comment from a Daily Dispatch reader.

Peter C. recently wrote to me and said:

Smoking cigarettes is a problem, even in moderation, due to the Polonium-110 in the cigarette paper. This element emits an alpha particle, which is like a helium nucleus. Because it is more massive than the hydrogen that is present in the lung tissue, it can do a lot of damage, even in small amounts.

This has the nugget of a very good point.

The data from our own study–published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1989–showed benefits of moderate cigar and pipe smoking. (We used data based on an earlier cycle of the very same U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reported here.) But cigars and pipes use natural whole leaf tobacco, like the traditional Native Americans used. They don’t contain the additives found in cigarette papers and cigarette tobaccos.

But cigarettes contain all kinds of additives. For example, some cigarette additives are actually fire anti-retardants to prevent a lit cigarette from going out! So, now smoking cigarettes is a fire hazard in addition to a potential health hazard.

Back in 1989, our data for cigarettes showed only marginal benefits for light smoking. And more than just half-a-pack per day is clearly bad for health. Light smoking helped men and women maintain a “healthy” weight. But newer research, as we just reported, shows that a little extra weight is actually healthy.  The answers to good health are never easy, as the baby boomers are finding. But as the science improves, so do the answers. That is, if the government pays attention to the real science, not just their politically correct version.

1. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;():1-2. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.2006.