The earliest baby boomers seem to be approaching retirement age with more health problems, more pain and more drinking and psychiatric problems than reported by people at the same age a dozen years earlier, a new federally sponsored survey finds.
The report was published in print and online this week by the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research. It raises some doubts about whether reduced disability in old age observed over the past two decades will continue as boomers pass the 65 milestone.
"Our findings certainly run counter to the prevailing expectations of generally good health in old age, the idea that we'll all be running marathons when we're 100 and drop dead unexpectedly," said Beth Soldo, a sociologist and director of the Population Aging Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania and lead author of the report.
Only about half of those born between 1948 and 1953 rated their health as "excellent" or "very good" when they were surveyed in 2004 (at age 51 to 56). By contrast, about 57 percent of those born between 1936 and 1941 felt they had above-average health at the same age.
Soldo said that a middle group in the survey those born between 1942 and 1947, including the first two years of the baby-boom block, and which she terms the "war babies" seems to see health problems much the same as the early boomers. Each survey group was drawn from a sample of more than 20,000 Americans over age 50, with the tracking beginning in 1992.
"Although they were born during the war, their childhood was more like that of the boomers in terms of nutrition, health-care advances like antibiotics and the move toward the suburbs and a more sedentary lifestyle," the researcher explained.
But the differences between the youngest group and the oldest group was the most striking in terms of reporting problems of pain, chronic illness, drinking and psychiatric problems. For instance, men in the early boomer group were three times more likely to report psychiatric problems than the oldest group, and women were more than twice as likely to report such problems.
Compared with the oldest group, the youngest group was more likely to report problems with daily activities like walking, climbing stairs, kneeling or crouching or getting up from a chair.
"We realize that this is all self-reported, and that because boomers may be carrying raised expectations of how they'll age, they may be less stoic about discovering limitations than the earliest group was," Soldo said. "But based on some findings from other recent studies, we don't think all of this is mere perception."
A Scripps analysis earlier this year that looked at causes of death among baby boomers in 2003 also found evidence that the group was dying from suicide and drug-related causes at a higher rate than in the preceding generation, which experts say has haunted boomers through every stage of adolescent and adult life.
Soldo and officials at the National Institute on Aging, which sponsored the study, said while their surveys didn't ask about people's weight, the increased self-reporting of disability may have a lot to do with more obesity among the early boomers, which contributes not only directly to physical limits, but also to chronic illness such as heart disease and diabetes.
"Everyone in aging research is really interested in how the early boomers are faring, because they may signal how the rest of this huge group of boomers will fare in retirement," said Soldo, who also serves as a consultant on health and aging to government Social Security actuaries."To a great extent, a person's stock of health mirrors their wealth. If they're in good health, they're more likely to delay retirement and have more savings and a better benefit profile; if they have to retire early, they'll be less well off financially. Of course, not everyone who reports physical limits or pain has to retire early in today's economy, but it could be an influence for a lot of people."
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