By the year 2030, the last of the baby boomers – the 78 million Americans born after World War II between 1946 and 1964 – will be turning 65. According to the Schaeffer Center of Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California, the average U.S. life expectancy for 65-year-olds will rise 20.1 years in 2030. (Although covid deaths in 2020 caused a drop by 1.5 years). Even those with disabilities are expected to extend their lives by up to 8.6 years. Despite the fact that baby boomers are projected to live longer lives than their parents, they will likely be less healthy, researchers say.
By the year 2030, the typical Medicare beneficiary over 65 will be more likely to suffer from obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, and be disabled than those in 2010, the Schaeffer Center report said. This new generation of seniors are expected to number over 67 million, which will more than double current Medicare costs, increasing to $1.2 trillion by 2030. Due to the longer life expectancies, shifting health trends, and medical cost inflation, costs per Medicare beneficiary are projected to increase 50 percent; Medicare will likely spend 72 percent more for the remaining lifetime of a typical 65-year-old beneficiary in 2030 than in 2010, according to the report.
“It’d be one thing if there was an increase in life expectancy while maintaining health, but this is different. If you have more people that are disabled, it’s more costly, and we’re paying more because they’re living longer,” said lead researcher Dana Goldman at the University of Southern California. “In some ways, we are victims of our success” in extending lives and preventing mortality, he said. “We’ve done such a good job of preventing cardiovascular disease that now we have more cancer and Alzheimer’s.”
Currently, 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic condition, while 50 percent have at least two. The 2020 America’s Health Rankings said that obesity is one of the biggest risks factors for chronic illness. More than one-third of Americans are obese, which increases the risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, breathing problems, and certain forms of cancer. In 2010, 28 percent of Medicare beneficiaries were affected by obesity, a number that is expected to rise to 47 percent by 2030, according to the Schaeffer Center. “The people about to become eligible are more sick and obese [than past beneficiaries], even though there are treatments that will keep them living longer,” said Etienne Gaudette, a lead economist from the Schaeffer Center.
Increases in other chronic conditions by 2030 are also projected by the report:
- Hypertension – 79 percent vs. 67 percent in 2010.
- Heart disease – 43 percent vs. 36 percent.
- Diabetes – 39 percent vs. 24 percent.
- Three or more chronic conditions – 40 percent vs. 26 percent.
Research is pointing to the post-boomer generation – Gen X – already tracking to not only continue the trend of chronic conditions as its members age but to be in worse health. A study by the University College of London showed that members of Gen X are living longer but in much poorer health.
Another prominent health issue in seniors that is commonly overshadowed by physical ailments is mental health. According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, 1 in 5 American seniors – between 5.6 and 8 million– has a mental health or substance abuse problem. While mental health issues are not caused by aging, cases that occur in seniors are often overlooked or made more complex by other issues, according to the report.
Most people over 65, as mentioned above, have physical health issues that they are dealing with that can be a distraction from mental health problems and treatment. Sometimes, the physical ailments and medications used to treat them can also complicate mental health treatment. As the body ages, it metabolizes alcohol and drugs, including prescription drugs, differently. This may increase the risk of overdose and substance abuse problems.
Grief and depression are prominent in seniors, largely due to the loss of spouses, family members, and friends. Dr. Paul D.S. Kirwin, past president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, said losing these loved ones means losing a support system that could have helped seniors recover from mental health problems. Other stressors include the loss of a professional identity in retirement, and role reversal when children start to care for their aging parents.
“The burden of mental illness and substance abuse disorders in older adults in the United States borders on a crisis,” said Dr. Dan Blazer of Duke University, former chairman of the Institute of Medicine panel. “Yet this crisis is largely hidden from the public and many of those who develop policy and programs to care for older people.”
Though seniors are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, poor health is not an inevitable result of aging. Baby boomers and seniors can take steps to create a healthier lifestyle, including a balanced diet, exercise, and breaking unhealthy habits like smoking. The CDC is working to improve senior health by promoting public health issues like the use of preventive services, addressing depression, caregiver health and well-being, and end-of-life planning.
“Baby Boomers Live Longer but Have Poorer Health,” written by Taylor French and updated by Michelle Flores, Amada blog contributors.