But as the decades passed, it became apparent that this prediction wasn’t quite coming true. A June 2022 study from Penn State University reported that today’s older adults are more likely to be living with multiple chronic health conditions, including heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, certain cancers, depression symptoms and cognitive impairment. “For example,” said study author Steven Haas, “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, baby boomers exhibited a greater number of chronic health conditions. Baby boomers also reported two or more chronic health conditions at younger ages.”
What is behind this trend? Some experts have pointed out that the pandemic has taken its toll. But the pattern was emerging well before 2020. “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,” said Haas, who is an associate professor of psychology and sociology at Penn State.
Many experts have pointed to lifestyle factors. The early promise that baby boomers would be more active than their parents hasn’t really panned out. Their jobs were on average less physical—yet often stressful. TV, computers and now smartphones tempted many boomers into a couch potato lifestyle. Despite the health food trend of the generation, boomers in fact ate more prepared and fast food—and a lot of it, as portion size grew. The opioid epidemic also took its toll.
Yet the picture isn’t that simple. There is actually a “good news/bad news” angle. Texas State University professor Nicholas Bishop, who also worked on the study, says that while advances in medicine have allowed people to live longer, a longer life doesn’t necessarily equal a healthier life. A person may survive an illness that would have been fatal for their grandparents—and go on to develop other conditions. As Bishop points out, “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.”
Good medical care is an important part of healthy aging—but lifestyle is equally important. Experts list things that promote good health as we enter old age:
Physical activity. Exercise is often called the No. 1 factor in healthy aging, and for good reason! Staying physically active helps us prevent and manage many health conditions—including the ones mentioned above in the Penn State Study. A rigorous exercise routine isn’t required to provide these benefits. Even walking, housework, gardening and any other gentle activity that gets us off the couch provides a dose of valuable physical activity.
Good nutrition. Studies consistently show that eating plant-based foods, healthy proteins and fats, and whole grains lowers the risk of disease and helps us maintain a healthy weight. Ask your doctor to recommend a diet that is right for your health condition and any dietary restrictions you might have.
Staying mentally active and socially connected. Our brains need exercise, too. Spending time doing things that interest you, learning new things, and getting out and about can stave off cognitive decline. Socialization is important throughout life and while it might take a little more effort to find companionship in later years, it’s well worth it, as loneliness raises the risk of depression, dementia, inflammation and a host of other ailments.
Getting adequate sleep. Natural changes in our sleep cycle, the effects of medications, and certain physical illnesses can keep us awake at night as we grow older. But sleep problems can be treated; talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing insomnia, sleep apnea or another problem.
Managing health conditions. As we face health challenges—and most of us will in our later years—we can protect our health by adhering to the lifestyle choices suggested above, by having regular medical appointments and following our doctor’s advice, and by taking medications correctly, managing stress, not smoking, and avoiding excess alcohol.
Older adults can share this information with the younger generation, as well. Healthy aging is a worthy goal for individuals and our society—and the sooner we think about it, the better.