Compared to previous generations, older adults are more likely to experience a variety of health ailments
According to Penn State and Texas State University research, later-born generations of older adults in the United States are more likely to have more chronic health disorders than the generations who came before them.
The researchers claim that multimorbidity, the term for the presence of multiple chronic health disorders, poses a serious danger to the well-being of aging populations. As a result, there may be a greater burden on the healthcare and federal insurance systems as well as the health of older people, especially given that by 2050, there will be more than 50% more Americans over the age of 65 living in the United States.
The findings, according to Steven Haas, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, are consistent with other recent studies that indicate the health of more recent generations in the U.S. is generally worse than that of their predecessors.
“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,” Haas said. “Furthermore, the past 30 years has seen population health in the U.S. fall behind that in other high-income countries, and our findings suggest that the U.S. is likely to continue to fall further behind our peers.”
The researchers said the findings could help inform policy to address the potentially diminishing health in our expanding population of older adults. The paper was recently published in The Journals of Gerontology and was also worked on by Ana Quiñones, Oregon Health & Science University.
The Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of aging Americans, provided the researchers with data on adults aged 51 and older for the study. The research evaluated nine chronic conditions—heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, cancer (other than skin cancer), high depressive symptoms, and cognitive impairment—to determine the multimorbidity rate. The researchers also looked at the circumstances that cause generational differences in multimorbidity.
They discovered that older people who were born more recently had a higher likelihood of reporting more chronic diseases and having those problems start earlier in life.
“For example, when comparing those born between 1948-65 – 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.”
The researchers also found that sociodemographic factors such as race and ethnicity, whether the person was born in the U.S., childhood socioeconomic circumstances, and childhood health affected the risk of multimorbidity for all generations. 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.
Nicholas Bishop, assistant professor at Texas State University, said there could be multiple explanations for the findings.
“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,” 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.”
He added that older adults in more recently born generations have also had greater exposure to health risk factors such as obesity, which increases the likelihood of experiencing chronic disease. Medical advances have also been accompanied by better surveillance and measurement of disease, leading to the identification of chronic conditions which once may have gone undiagnosed.
The researchers said future studies could try to find explanations for these differences in multimorbidity between generations.
The National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health helped support this research.
Reference: “Cohort Trends in the Burden of Multiple Chronic Conditions Among Aging U.S. Adults” by Nicholas J Bishop, PhD, Steven A Haas, PhD and Ana R Quiñones, PhD, 1 June 2022, The Journals of Gerontology.