A wave of baby boomers may be hobbling toward retirement in worse health and with more aches and pains than people born before them, according to federally funded research.
They have more trouble climbing stairs, easing themselves out of a living-room Barcalounger and crouching to hug a grandchild, according to a survey of about 5,000 people born from 1948 to 1953 and released by the National Bureau of Economic Research earlier this year.
They smoke less, may be more aware of what's good and not so good for their bodies and have access to an ever-growing array of treatments and medication. But they said they hurt more, drink more, suffer more depression and experience more chronic health conditions than people born just before and during World War II.
Not everyone accepts the conclusions and the possibly dire implications for the future of Medicare. Even the study's authors say more research is needed. But virtually everyone has an idea of why baby boomers could be worse off.
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"We've grown up in an era where the answer was taking a pill for everything," said Dr. Edward Portnoy, who was born in 1949 and has built an internal-medicine practice in Westlake Village, Calif., focusing on people ages 50 to 70. "I think they felt as long as they take a pill, 'I don't have to exercise or watch what I eat.' "
That makes sense to Dale O'Brien, a 58-year-old insurance consultant who takes Lipitor to control his cholesterol. What makes him laugh is the theory that people his age may be the first generation to retire in worse shape than their parents because they're more sedentary.
O'Brien exercises four times a week, either by walking for six miles or running for 3-1/2 miles. He's always on the move and was interviewed hustling across a Camarillo, Calif., parking lot to shop in a Nike store.
The reason his knees creak like old stairs is because he's a product of the age of recreation. He spent decades pounding up and down blacktop basketball courts and sliding into second base during softball games.
"We have more pain because we're more active," he said.
The study used data from a federally funded Health and Retirement Study that tracks people as they age. Researchers compared how people from three different age groups answered a series of questions when they were 51 to 56 years old. They were asked about overall health, pain and whether they experienced problems doing things ranging from sitting for two hours to pushing a large object.
People born from 1936 to 1941 reported less problems in nearly every category than people born from 1942 to 1947. That second group, in turn, reported fewer problems than boomers though the gap is smaller.
Criticism of the research is directed at its reliance on people reporting their own aches and pains. Some experts worry the conclusions may mean only that people of different age groups complain more or are more aware when something's wrong.
"There is some truth to it but it's been oversold," said Dr. Arun Karlamangla, a UCLA geriatrician who lives in Thousand Oaks.
He noted that in all three age groups women reported more health problems in their 50s than men.
"We know that's not true," he said. "For a fact, we know that women are healthier than men."
The study looked only at a small portion of a baby boom that spanned from 1946 to 1964. Karlamangla predicted that a study of boomers born after 1953 would likely show their health is better because there's more emphasis on exercise and fitness.
Others say the reason some boomers may be hurting more is because they're getting bigger. National statistics show that more than 61 percent of Americans were overweight or obese last year.
"We're much fatter than we used to be," said Dr. Robert Levin, medical director of the Ventura County, Calif., Health Care Agency. "Of course we're going to see more joint pain and aches and pain."
The root cause is changes in society that devalue nutrition and fitness, Levin said. He pointed at everything from people staring at computer screens to driving to the grocery store instead of walking. Another culprit could be restaurants.
"We've become more affluent," Levin said. "As a result of our affluence, we can eat out more. We are eating food that is lesser quality than we would make ourselves in our homes and of greater quantity."