Later generations of older adults in the United States are more likely to have more chronic health conditions than previous generations, according to a study by Penn State and Texas State University.
Researchers say that the frequency of reports of many chronic health conditions – or multiple illnesses – is a significant threat to the health of aging populations. This could put more strain on the welfare of older adults, as well as medical and federal insurance, especially as the number of US adults over the age of 65 is projected to grow by more than 50% by 2050.
Steven Haas, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, said the results are in many ways consistent with recent research suggesting that the health of recent generations in the U.S. is worse than previous ones.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to see a decline in life expectancy among middle-aged Americans, a reversal of the trend of more than a century,” Haas said. “Moreover, the health of the U.S. population has lagged behind that of other high-income countries over the past 30 years, and our findings suggest that the U.S. will continue to lag behind our peers.”
Researchers say the findings may inform policies that address the declining health of our aging population that is spreading to older adults. The article was published a year ago Gerontology journals, and Ana Quiñones, also from Oregon Health & Science University.
For the study, researchers looked at data from adults 51 years of age and older in the Health and Retirement Research Survey, a representative national survey of older Americans. The study measured multimorbidity using a count of nine chronic conditions: heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, cancer (excluding skin cancer), severe depressive symptoms, and cognitive impairment. The researchers also looked at the variation in specific conditions that cause generational differences in multimorbidity.
Newborn generations of older adults saw a higher number of chronic conditions and saw that these conditions were more likely to appear earlier in life.
“For example, those born between 1948 and 65 – called Baby Boomers – compared to those born at similar ages in the last years of the Great Depression (1931 to 1941),” Haas said, “showed that Baby Boomer had a higher number of chronic health conditions. Boomers also reported two or more chronic health conditions at a younger age. “
The researchers also found that sociodemographic factors, such as race and ethnicity, whether a person was born in the United States, the socioeconomic circumstances of childhood, and the health of a child are at risk of morbidity for all generations. Among adults with multiple illnesses, arthritis and hypertension were the predominant conditions of all generations, and it was shown that high depressive symptoms and diabetes contributed to the perceived generational differences in diversity risk.
Nicholas Bishop, an 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 longer period of their lives, so we can expect them to be in better health than those born in previous generations,” Bishop said. “While this is partially true, advanced medical treatments allow individuals to live with a variety of chronic conditions that could once be fatal, increasing a person’s likelihood of experiencing diversity.”
He added that older adults in the newborn generation have had a higher exposure to health risk factors, such as obesity, which increases the likelihood of developing chronic diseases. Advances in medicine have also contributed to better surveillance and measurement of the disease, identifying chronic diseases that may have been undiagnosed once.
The researchers said that future research could try to find explanations for these multi-generational differences between generations.
The National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health contributed to this research.
Materials provided Penn State. Note: Content can be edited by style and length.