Baby boomers earn more, eat better and smoke less than previous generations. They work out, play golf and take care of themselves. They look in the mirror and tell themselves “60 is the new 40.”
Not so fast, say a team of health researchers at the University of Toronto. “We found no evidence that the health of baby boomers is substantially different from that of the previous or succeeding cohorts.”
The medical scientists also delivered a sobering message to policy-makers. Don’t buy into the popular perception that baby boomers will require less health care as they age. It is based on wishful thinking, not measured reality.
The lead author of the paper, Elizabeth Badley, a professor of epidemiology at the university’s school of public health, grants that affluence, education, stable employment and access to medical care are normally predictors of good health. Baby boomers do well by these yardsticks. But that is not the whole story, she warns. There is an “obesity epidemic” in the land. It is already taking its toll on the postwar generation.
What she and her four colleagues found, after an exhaustive analysis of Canadian health records from 1994 and 2010, was that the benefits of education, affluence and reduced tobacco use were almost neutralized by the rising incidence of obesity among baby boomers.
“I can’t say I was surprised by the results,” said Badley, who has spent her working life investigating chronic diseases, tracking obesity rates and studying what happens to people as they age.
Most baby boomers, steeped in media images of healthy, attractive members of their generation, will be surprised. This upends their self-image, challenges their expectations.
So far the study has received little attention, partly because it was published in an American journal of epidemiology and partly because it contradicts what everyone thinks.
Assuming its results are corroborated by further research, Canadians born between 1946 and 1965 (who make up 30 per cent of the population) will have to take a hard look at their diet, lifestyle and retirement plans. Health-care officials will have to adjust their priorities and demographic projections.
The immediate implication of the study — and its strongest recommendation — is that governments should redouble their efforts to control obesity. The baby boom generation is the first, but not the last, cohort to live in the era of convenience food. It was already into early adulthood by the time chemically enhanced food loaded with salt and sweeteners became ubiquitous. Subsequent generations have spent their entire lives eating tasty, fattening food and sitting in front of digital devices that require little exertion or movement.
Governments are aware of the problem. They have studied the swelling girth of the population, consulted experts and come up with multi-faceted plans. But very little of this has filtered down to the level of personal behaviour. Nor has there been much change at the supermarket. The onus is on consumers to find sources of nutrition that aren’t loaded with saturated fats, salt and sugar.
The researchers’ second recommendation is that other investigators pay more attention to this issue. Their lack of curiosity puzzles Badley, who describes herself as an older boomer. She can’t believe she and her colleagues are the only medical scientists who noticed the glaring mismatch between the popular view of aging and the information collected by health-care professionals. She can’t understand why governments aren’t demanding credible facts and figures on which to base their estimate of the magnitude of the health-care burden in the coming years. “It would have been nice to be able to say that each succeeding generation is healthier than the last,” she says. It just doesn’t seem to be true.
For a while it was. Medical technology was improving, people were becoming more knowledgeable about their health, once-deadly diseases were being reduced to manageable conditions and life expectancy was going up. But over time, those positive trends were undercut by changes in North American behaviour. Home-cooked meals dwindled, physical activity fell off, stress levels rose and nutrition-related chronic diseases spread through the population. Hypertension, stroke, cancer and dementia may not kill people but they limit their ability to travel, socialize, eat out, play golf, go back to school or do voluntary work.
The U of T research team didn’t lecture or scold. It merely highlighted the importance of checking the facts before buying into a heavily marketed fantasy.