Baby boomers may be living longer than their parents or grandparents, but they’re not necessarily healthier than previous generations at the same ages. New research published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, shows that later-born generations of older adults in the United States are more likely to have more chronic health conditions than the generations that preceded them.
The prevalence of multi-morbidity — which affects between 55% and 98% of the U.S. population age 65 and older, represents a substantial health threat to aging populations as the number of older Americans increases. Multiple chronic conditions (MCCs) also place a tremendous strain on the health system, such as increased demand for various specialists, more frequent hospitalizations, a need for more complex care coordination and medication management.
MCCs also put more financial pressure on Medicare, which pays for almost all health care for those over 65. This demographic currently makes up about 16% of the U.S. population — but will account for 21% of all Americans — about 77 million — by 2030. That number is expected to soar to 97.5 million by 2060, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Study methodology and analyzing results
Researchers examined data from adults 51 and older, using 20 years of data from the Health and Retirement Study, a long-term, nationally representative survey of aging Americans.
The study measured multi-morbidity using nine chronic conditions:
- Heart disease
- Lung disease
- Cancer (excluding skin cancer)
- High depressive symptoms
- Cognitive impairment
Investigators looked at the differences in multi-morbidity between cohorts and found that more recently-born generations of older adults were more likely to report a greater number of chronic conditions and experience the onset of MCCs earlier in life than those born in prior eras. For example, when comparing baby boomers (in this study, those born between 1948-1965) to those born during the later years of the Great Depression (1931-1941) at similar ages, boomers not only exhibited a greater number of chronic health conditions but also reported earlier onset of two or more chronic health conditions.
Not surprisingly, sociodemographic factors such as race and ethnicity, whether the person was born in the United States, childhood socioeconomic circumstances and childhood health influenced the risk of multi-morbidity for all cohorts. Among adults with MCCs, arthritis and hypertension were the most prevalent conditions for all generations, and there was evidence that high depressive symptoms and diabetes contributed to the observed generational differences in multi-morbidity risk.
On the surface, the results may seem counter-intuitive. Later-born generations have had access to more advanced modern medicine for a longer period of their lives, therefore may be expected to enjoy better health than those born to prior generations. Though this is partially true, advanced medical treatments often allow people to live with multiple chronic conditions that once would have been fatal at younger ages, according to study co-author Nicholas Bishop, Ph.D., assistant professor of human development and family sciences at Texas State University.
Older adults in more recently born generations have also had more exposure to health risks such as obesity, which increases the likelihood of developing certain chronic diseases.
Researchers used statistical modeling to help account for advances such as better surveillance and measurement of disease and identifying chronic conditions which once may have gone undiagnosed. However, they acknowledge that confounding factors may remain.