Boomers are far less fit than their parents were

Not that they’re inclined to believe it

Boomers developed their “forever young” mentality partly as an aversion to how their parents aged, says social demographer Andrew V. Wister: “They saw the grey hair, the wrinkles. They got slower and chubbier. Boomers are very cognizant that they don’t want to age the way their parents did.” So it makes perfect sense that baby boomers are among the biggest consumers of Botox and hair dye. But beyond the surface, it’s another story: rather than being more fit than their parents were when they were in their 40s, 50s and 60s, many boomers are actually now in worse shape.

It’s an inevitable part of adulthood: realizing the ways in which we are just like and nothing like our parents. The revelation can be amusing, even nostalgic. Or, as recent statistics examining the health of baby boomers suggest, the realization can be unsettling.

In this, the second article in a three-part series examining the wellness and lifestyles of baby boomers—those born between 1946 and 1965, who account for nearly one-third of the national population—Maclean’s explores their physical condition and finds that for all their youthful attitudes, baby boomers are actually setting themselves up for senior years marred by sickness.

The obesity rate for boomers is double what it was for their parents at the same age, says Wister, who is a professor and chair of the gerontology department at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. And only about half of boomers are physically active, he says, referring to Statistics Canada surveys. Meanwhile, a 2007 federally funded study in the U.S. found that the oldest baby boomers reported poorer health than people nearly 20 years their senior. They were more likely to have trouble walking long distances or lifting 10 lb., for example, and referred more often to pain and chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes. That’s in line with statistics cited by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada showing that one in five baby boomers has at least two of the risk factors for heart disease and stroke, which include high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and obesity.

Remarkably, many baby boomers appear oblivious to the risks they face: 58 per cent surveyed by the HSF in 2006 thought that weight has little or no effect on their heart health. In fact, boomers are categorically optimistic about their future: 80 per cent believed they’ll live longer than previous generations. But that expectation won’t be fulfilled if current trends persist, says Dr. Beth Abramson, HSF spokesperson and a cardiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “It’s a false sense of security that boomers have,” she explains. “There is a big concern that if people don’t take charge of their health, we may see more of them coming into the ER with heart attack and stroke.”

That change won’t come easily to this generation. Boomers grew up in an increasingly automobile-centred society, so physical activity wasn’t a practical function of their daily lives, unlike their parents who walked to school and worked the farm. Over the years, boomers have played by their own rules and prospered, which Abramson suggests has fostered a “sense of entitlement toward good health.” It’s also the first generation in which a huge percentage of families had two income earners—which afforded them more disposable income but less chance to cook at home or exercise. Now, as some boomers reach a place of personal and financial freedom‚ they’re still indulging in take-out or restaurant meals—which are often unhealthy, unbalanced and supersized—or splurging on big-ticket items that encourage lazing around, such as a “big-screen TV and surround sound,” says Abramson.

Other boomers can’t find the time, money or energy to take better care of themselves. “With the financial crisis a lot of people’s nest eggs shrunk,” says Wister, who authored the book Baby Boomer Health Dynamics. They may be putting in extra hours at work to reach their retirement goals, pay off their mortgage or fund their children’s university education. Outside the office their hours may be spent tending to family needs—including those of their aging, ailing parents. The Canadian Institute of Stress calls boomers the “triple-decker sandwich generation,” and reports that exorbitant life demands have resulted in higher rates of depression among them than in previous generations.

In paying so much attention to others and to-do lists, many boomers succumb to what Abramson calls the “slow creep” of fat—a couple of pounds per year, until eventually they’ve gained enough to compromise their well-being. When boomers do notice that they’re getting heavy, the negative health consequences may not have surfaced yet, and so they figure they’re young enough that the extra weight won’t harm them. For those who do attempt to start exercising again, finding the time and keeping it up can be a constant battle, says Bradley Young, a human kinetics professor at the University of Ottawa. “If you stop and life gets in the way it makes it that much more difficult to capture the momentum to do physical activity,” he says.

It’s not all bad news, though. This generation engages in significantly less smoking and heavy drinking, say experts, two big contributors to poor health. Wister also has preliminary data showing that the obesity rate may have peaked, though it’s still early days to know whether the crisis is really over. No matter, Abramson says that if boomers wise up to the health risks they face, they still have enough time to make improvements—the oldest boomers turn 65 next year. “Boomers can set back the clock,” she says, “and live long, healthy lives.”

Young, whose research focuses on what motivates people to participate in high-level sport over the whole length of their lives, has witnessed another encouraging trend: some baby boomers re-engaging in competitive physical activity as they get older, after having “outgrown” sport in their mid-20s. Part of the reason this is happening, suggests Young, is that boomers see it as “an opportunity to reclaim an identity that they had many years ago.”

It is also a chance for baby boomers to redefine what it means to age. “The traditional stereotype is that you should slow down, rest and, for the love of Pete, don’t do competitive sport,” Young explains. If boomers are up for the challenge, “this cohort may actually change social norms for what we expect is possible for people as they get older.”

That is, baby boomers may still be able to prove that they are in better shape than their parents were.