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Middle-Aged Baby Boomers: Aging toward a Tidal Wave of Health-Care Needs

Renee Despres
Monday, February 4, 2013 - 11:09

A disturbing new study by researchers at the RAND Corporation and the University of Michigan suggests that baby boomers may not be aging gracefully, at least in the United States. The researchers analyzed disability data from the National Health Interview Survey, a nationally representative survey of health issues for Americans. They looked for two types of disability: limited mobility (for example, not being able to walk a quarter of a mile) or needing help with daily personal care (basic things like getting out of bed, going to the toilet, or brushing teeth). They found that significantly more older middle-aged Americans (ages 50 to 64) reported disabilities related to mobility in 2007 than in 1997. In contrast, disability has declined among Americans ages 65 and over.

Here are some of the startling results of the study:

  • More than 40 percent of people aged 50 to 64 reported that because of a health problem they had difficulty with at least one of nine physical functions and many reported problems with more than one.
  • Over the study period, researchers noted a significant increase in the number of people reporting that a health problem made it difficult for them to stoop, stand for two hours, walk a quarter mile or climb 10 steps without resting.
  • There also was a significant increase in the proportion of people who reported needing help with personal care activities of daily living such as getting in or out of bed or getting around inside their homes.

The causes people cited for their disabilities were also troubling: back or neck problems, diabetes, and depression, anxiety or emotional problems were the most common causes from 1997 to 2005. By 2005-07, the four most common causes for needing help were these three plus arthritis or rheumatism. People reporting disability most often said these problems started when they were in their thirties or forties. The authors note that obesity wasn’t cited as a common cause of disability and leave it at that. But look at the list of causes: We know that obesity increases the risk of orthopedic problems, emotional problems, and that it is the greatest risk factor for diabetes. The authors did not correlate weight — even self-reported weight — with their study results, which would provide information about obesity as an underlying cause of the health problems that are leading to disability in this age gr0up.

Obesity as an underlying cause aside, this small little tucked-away study is incredibly important to health-care policymakers. In reserved scientific-ese, the researchers observe that the increase in disability among people in this age group may signify trouble ahead:

“This is a disappointing trend with potentially far-reaching and long-term negative consequences,” said Richard Suzman, director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging, which funded the study. “If people have such difficulties in middle age, how can we expect that this age group—today’s baby boomers—will be able to take care of itself with advancing age? If it continues, this trend could have a significant effect on the need for long-term care in the future.”

In other words… just wait until the babyboomers hit65 . We’re in for a tidal wave of health-care needs.