Older adults are more likely to have multiple health problems than previous generations

According to a study conducted by Penn State and Texas State University, later generations of older adults in the United States are more likely to have a greater number of chronic health problems than the generations that preceded them.

According to the researchers, the increasing frequency of reporting multiple chronic health conditions — or multimorbidity — poses a substantial threat to the health of aging populations. This could put greater strain on the well-being of older adults, as well as medical and federal insurance systems, especially as the number of U.S. adults over age 65 is expected to grow by more than 50% by 2050.

Steven Haas, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, said the results fit with other recent research suggesting that the health of more recent generations in the U.S. is worse than that of their predecessors in a number of ways.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to see a decline in life expectancy among middle-aged Americans, a reversal of the century-long trend,” Haas said. “In addition, the health of the US population has lagged behind other high-income countries over the past 30 years, and our findings suggest that the US is likely to lag further behind our peers.”

The researchers said the findings could help inform policies to address the potentially declining health of our growing population of older adults. The article was recently published in The journals of gerontology, and was also being worked on by Ana Quiñones, Oregon Health & Science University.

For the study, the researchers examined data on adults age 51 and older from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of aging Americans. The study measured multimorbidity using nine chronic conditions: heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, cancer (excluding skin cancer), high depressive symptoms and cognitive impairment. The researchers also examined variation in the specific conditions that cause generational differences in multimorbidity.

They found that more recently born generations of older adults are more likely to report a higher number of chronic conditions and experience the onset of those conditions earlier in life.

“When comparing those born between 1948-65 — called baby boomers — with those born at similar ages in the later years of the Great Depression (between 1931 and 1941),” Haas said, “baby boomers showed a greater number of chronic health problems. Baby boomers also reported two or more chronic health problems at a younger age.”

The researchers also found that socio-demographic factors such as race and ethnicity, whether the person was born in the US, childhood socioeconomic conditions, and children’s health influenced the risk of multimorbidity for all generations. Among adults with multimorbidity, arthritis and hypertension were the most common all-generation disorders, and there was evidence that high depressive symptoms and diabetes contributed to the observed generational differences in multimorbidity 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 over a longer period of their lives, so we can expect them to enjoy better health than those born to earlier generations,” Bishop said. “While this is partially true, advanced medical treatments may enable individuals to live with multiple chronic conditions that would once have proved fatal, increasing the likelihood that a person will experience 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 chronic disease. Medical advances have also been accompanied by better monitoring and measurement of disease, leading to the identification of chronic conditions that were once undiagnosed.

The researchers said future studies could try to find explanations for these differences in multimorbidity between generations.

The National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health supported this research.

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