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Baby Boomers in Bad Shape

Study Shows Boomers in Poorer Health Than Pre-World War II Group at Same Age
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 6, 2007 -- Baby boomers appear to be heading for retirement in worse shape than their elders born in the years before World War II.

That's according to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The study shows that baby boomers aged 51-56 report worse health and more pain, drinking, psychiatric problems, and difficulty with daily physical tasks than their predecessors.

"This trend portends poorly for the future health of boomers as they age and incur increasing costs associated with health care and medications," the researchers write.

They include Beth Soldo, PhD, Distinguished Senior Scholar in the University of Pennsylvania's sociology department.

Then and Now

The study looked at three groups: people born between 1936 and 1941, when America entered WWII; "war babies" born between 1942 and 1947; and baby boomers born between 1948 and 1953, after American soldiers had returned home.

When participants were 51-56 years old, they completed a questionnaire about their medical and psychiatric history, general health, pain, smoking, drinking, and degree of difficulty with common physical tasks such as climbing stairs or walking several blocks.

The questionnaire was completed in 1992 by more than 5,300 people from the oldest group, in 1998 by more than 5,000 war babies, and in 2004 by about 5,000 baby boomers.

Study's Results

The findings: In their early to mid 50s, the boomers reported more chronic conditions, pain, mental illness, drinking problems, and difficulty with common physical tasks than the oldest group had at the same age.

"Overall, the raw evidence indicates that boomers on the verge of retirement are in poorer health than their counterparts 12 years [earlier]," write the researchers.

The reasons for that change aren't clear.

Perhaps baby boomers are more informed about their health, or more willing to note health problems, than the oldest group. Or perhaps their health has taken a turn for the worse.

The researchers didn't confirm participants' self-reported medical history. They also didn't give participants checkups to gauge the true state of their health.

The boomers and war babies had similar data, suggesting they were roughly in the same shape in their mid-50s.

Healthy in Midlife

The news isn't all bad for baby boomers. Many reported few chronic conditions, little pain, and no physical restrictions or mental problems.

"But a small fraction is in very poor health, with multiple chronic conditions," write the researchers.

Those reporting good health tended to report high levels of education, good childhood health, and highly educated parents. Smoking and heavy drinking were often noted by unhealthy participants.

The study appears on the web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research and was partly funded by the National Institute on Aging, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.

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