Health challenges facing the nation’s largest generation and how to reduce your risks
What health concerns are starting to affect the baby boomer generation.
About 76 million people were born during the baby boom years, which range from 1946 to 1964. As the first wave of these baby boomers reaches retirement age and becomes eligible for Medicare, physicians are focusing on health concerns that will become more prevalent among this generation.
“Although the risk of developing chronic health problems increases with age, the root causes of many of these conditions begin earlier in life,” says Reyzan Shali, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Scripps Coastal Medical Center. “Research has shown that people who eat healthy, stay active and avoid tobacco use can significantly lower their risk of developing many of the chronic health conditions we often associate with aging,” she adds.
Health challenges facing baby boomers
1. Type 2 diabetes
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011 people ages 65 to74 were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 13 times as often as people age 45 or younger. Diabetes increases the risk of serious health problems such as high blood pressure, vision loss, kidney disease, nerve damage, foot problems, amputation and cardiovascular disease. People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or a stroke. Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for diabetes. With lifestyle changes and proper medical care, diabetes and its associated risks can be managed.
2. Heart disease
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women over age 60. After age 45, the risk of developing it increases significantly. Coronary artery disease, in which the arteries that deliver blood to the heart become narrowed or blocked, is the most common type of heart disease and a main cause of heart attacks.
“Heart disease risk falls significantly when people avoid tobacco use, control their blood pressure and cholesterol through exercise and a low-fat, low-sodium diet, and maintain a healthy body weight,” says Dr. Shali. If you’re between ages 45 and 79, you should ask your doctor if taking aspirin might lower your risk of heart attack.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death among people age 65 and older.
“The good news is that cancer-related death rates are declining instead of rising, and that means the chances of surviving cancer is now higher than compared to the past,” says Dr. Shali.
As we age, cancer screenings are routinely used to detect cancers at early stages, possibly before you can feel symptoms. Many forms of cancer can be linked to lifestyle and behavior choices. To lower your risk, it is important to make healthy dietary choices, exercise, avoid tobacco products and maintain a healthy weight.
Depression affects more than 6.5 million Americans age 65 or older. While many have struggled with depression throughout their lives, some may experience it for the first time later in life.
“It is important for both physicians and patients to recognize that depression is not a normal process of aging,” says Dr. Shali. “Unfortunately, many patients feel uncomfortable with the subject of depression. Many feel that seeking help is a sign of weakness. It is very important for you to accept that you need help. Once you decide to seek medical assistance, your primary care physician is a great start for help.”
5. Eye Problems
Cataracts affect nearly 20.5 million Americans age 40 and older, and by age 80, more than half of all Americans have a cataract or have had cataract surgery. Recent advancements have improved the precision and safety of cataract surgery, resulting in faster surgeries, easier and shorter recoveries, and in some cases, better vision than before surgery. In addition, untreated macular degeneration (a progressive disease of the eye) is the leading cause of blindness in people over age 55. With treatment, the progression of the disease may be stopped or slowed. Annual eye exams can help catch vision problems in their earliest stages.
6. Alzheimer’s disease
The sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., Alzheimer’s disease is most common in people age 65 and older. But up to 5 percent of people begin to experience symptoms in their 50s or even their 40s.
“Emerging evidence suggests a close link between brain health and overall health of the heart and blood vessels,” says Dr. Shali. Although there is no clear evidence yet to what causes Alzheimer’s, it has been clearly shown that avoiding tobacco and pursuing a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet and physical activity can help maintain brain health.
7. Arthritis and Joint Replacement
When the cartilage that cushions your bones at the joints begins to break down, the bones begin to rub together. The resulting pain, swelling and stiffness is called osteoarthritis. Daily exercise such as walking, aquatic therapy and yoga can assist in maintaining joint flexibility. Maintaining a healthy weight is key in preventing excessive pressure on your joints that can cause this type of damage to the cartilage in joint spaces. If the damage is severe, joints may need to be surgically replaced.
Millions of Americans have osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is more commonly found in women, but men can be affected as well. Prevention is key to avoid weakening of your bones associated with osteoporosis. After age 50, as many as half of all women will break a bone due to osteoporosis. By age 65 to 70, men and women lose bone mass at the same rate, with a similar decrease in the amount of calcium their bones absorb. Tobacco and alcohol use earlier in life can increase risk, as can being underweight. Talk to your doctor about calcium supplements and other treatments that can help prevent osteoporosis.
Influenza and pneumonia and are among the top 10 causes of death for older adults. Vaccinations are now widely available for both diseases and are usually covered by health insurance or available at a very low cost. Ask your doctor if you should be vaccinated.
10. “Sandwich Generation” Stress
In addition to caring for their own families, many boomers are caring for elderly parents. The stress of being a dual caregiver can be significant, especially on individuals who are also working outside the home, struggling financially, or dealing with other challenges. “It’s important to take care of yourself first,” says Dr. Shali. Make an effort to get enough sleep, eat right, and exercise regularly.