A recent segment on National Public Radio describes the poor health of the Baby Boomer generation. Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964, so they are now in their late 40s to mid-60s. A group of researchers led by Dana King, a physician and chairperson of the Department of Family Practice at West Virginia University, compared the health of boomers with the health of similarly aged individuals two decades ago (data came from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey). The stereotype of Boomers is that they are active and fit, and the researchers’ comparison did identify some areas in which Boomers were more healthy than the earlier cohort—they are less likely to smoke, get emphysema, or have heart attacks. In many ways, though, Boomer health is poorer. They are more likely to have high blood pressure or diabetes. They are more likely to be obese or have a disability. According to King, “Only 13 percent of people said they were in excellent health compared with 33 percent a generation ago, and twice as many said they were in poor health.” This is quite a change from 20 years earlier. Perhaps part of the difference comes from Boomers having higher standards for what constitutes excellent health. Still it is surprising that about seven out of eight Boomers don’t think their health is excellent.
Obesity appears to be an important factor in Boomers’ poor health, contributing as it does to diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and the joint problems that can impair mobility. So, why are Boomers more likely than the previous generation to be obese? External factors such as our toxic food environment play a role. Soft drinks and fast foods are heavily marketed, and the prices of sugar, sweets, and carbonated drinks have declined relative to the prices of healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables. Though fast food restaurants predated the birth of the first Boomer, the industry grew along with us, and I suspect we are more inclined to go through the drive-thru to pick up a tasty but fat- and calorie-laden meal than were members of the generation that preceded us.
Exercise (or lack thereof) also plays a role in both obesity and poor health. It turns out that boomers are doing a dismal job of getting to the gym. According to King, “About half of people 20 years ago said they exercised regularly, which meant three times a week, and that rate now is only about 18 percent.” What’s responsible for the huge decline? The title of the NPR segment suggests that not taking care of our health is an act of Boomer rebellion, but that’s hard to believe. Who would we be rebelling against by becoming couch potatoes? Perhaps a more likely explanation is how we define ourselves. Thinking of ourselves as athletic, energetic, and perpetually young, we may take such qualities so much for granted that we don’t see the need of actually doing things that would maintain our fitness and vitality. It’s similar to our attitude towards savings; we’ve been told that collectively we are the most asset-rich generation in history, so many of us have decided that, being proclaimed wealthy, we don’t have to bother with actually saving for retirement.
In my psychological practice, not many clients initially come to therapy primarily to address concerns about health. They are usually more focused on emotional or interpersonal problems. Physical, emotional, and relational health are all intertwined, though, so I’m sensitive to the person’s health status and habits. We often focus on improving these. Though I’m not a physician, nurse, or dietitian, I have something to contribute to helping people meet health goals. Physicians are good at telling people how they should eat or how much they should exercise, but usually don’t know how to motivate people to make needed changes. Psychologists are experts in behavioral change, though, and thus are good at helping people stop activities that harm health and start activities that enhance it. Psychologists are also aware of how easy it is to relapse, and offer help in overcoming the discouragement and hopelessness that lapsed dieters and exercisers often experience. Even we Boomers can be healthier if given a little help!