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Baby boomers more likely to suffer from multiple chronic health issues than others

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Baby boomers are more likely to suffer from multiple chronic health conditions than earlier generations, a new study found.

Researchers from Penn State and Texas State University in the US warn that the growing rate of multiple chronic health conditions – also commonly referred to as multimorbidity – among Americans from the Baby Boomer generation represents a substantial threat to ageing populations.

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They warned that if this continues to be the case, the generation will place increase strain on medical infrastructure, insurance systems, and the wellbeing of older adults. In the US alone, the number of adults above the age of 65 is projected to grow by over 50 percent by 2050.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were beginning to see declines in life expectancy among middle-aged Americans, a reversal of more than a century-long trend,” Associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State Steven Haas said in a statement carried by the university.

“Furthermore, the past 30 years has seen population health in the US fall behind that in other high-income countries, and our findings suggest that the US is likely to continue to fall further behind our peers,” Haas added.

The researchers said the findings could help inform policy to address the potentially diminishing health in our expanding population of older adults.

Published in The Journals of Gerontology, the study analyzed data from adults aged 51 years and older from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of ageing Americans.

The study measured multimorbidity using a count of nine chronic conditions: hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, stroke, cancer (excluding skin cancer), high depressive symptoms, arthritis, and cognitive impairment.

It also explored variation in the specific conditions driving generational differences in multimorbidity. The researchers found that more recently born generations of older adults were more likely to report a greater number of chronic health issues and experience the onset of those conditions earlier in life.

“For example, when comparing those born between 1948 and 1965 — referred to as baby boomers — to those born during the later years of the Great Depression [between 1931 and 1941] at similar ages,” Haas said, “baby boomers exhibited a greater number of chronic health conditions. Baby boomers also reported two or more chronic health conditions at younger ages.”

Among adults with multimorbidity, arthritis and hypertension were the most prevalent conditions for all generations, and there was evidence that high depressive symptoms and diabetes contributed to the observed generational differences in multimorbidity risk.

“Later-born generations have had access to more advanced modern medicine for a greater period of their lives, therefore we may expect them to enjoy better health than those born to prior generations,” assistant professor at Texas State University Nicolas Bishop said.

“Though this is partially true, advanced medical treatments may enable individuals to live with multiple chronic conditions that once would have proven fatal, potentially increasing the likelihood that any one person experiences multimorbidity.”

Bishop added that this age group of adults were also more exposed to health risk factors like obesity, which increase the risk of chronic illness.

The researchers said future studies could try to find explanations for these differences in multimorbidity between generations.

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