Despite significant medical advances and increasingly aggressive public health campaigns over the past several decades, the baby boomer generation is actually sicker than their parents’ generation, according to a new study from JAMA Internal Medicine. As the study’s authors point out, that’s partly because baby boomers — the 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — are experiencing the adverse effects of the nation’s obesity epidemic.
In one of the first studies to analyze health data across generations, researchers focused on the Americans who were between the ages of 46 to 64 years old in the late 2000s, as well as those who fell in that age range in the late 1980s. After comparing the two groups’ lifestyles, health statuses, and prevalence of chronic diseases, the study’s authors found that — even though younger generations of Americans are now living longer than their parents did — the nation’s rising obesity rates are causing their quality of life to decline:
Almost 40 percent of the boomers are obese, compared with 29 percent a generation ago. Fifty-two percent said they got no regular physical activity versus 17 percent of their parents, according to the study.
The results are a “wake-up call,” said Susan Reinhard, senior vice president of AARP’s Public Policy Institute in Washington.
“We have to cherish the longevity we’ve been given as a gift,” she said in a telephone interview. “We have to fight to live well not just live long. We’d like to believe that 60 is the new 40, but you can’t be that 40-something if you are just sitting on the couch.”
Fewer baby boomers are smoking, or developing tobacco-related diseases, than the older adults in their parents’ generation. But, partly because baby boomers are more overweight than their parents were at their age, they do have higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol, become sicker earlier in their lives, and are more likely to need a cane or walker.
That shift underscores the fact that addressing the obesity epidemic now surpasses smoking cessation programs as the most pressing public health initiative in the United States today — particularly since, although Americans agree that obesity is a more serious issue than smoking, the majority of them still remain unaware of the public health risks associated with obesity.