Later generations of older adults in the United States are more likely to have a greater number of chronic health conditions than the generations that preceded them, according to a new study.
The increasing frequency of reporting multiple chronic health conditions, or multimorbidity, poses a substantial threat to the health of aging populations, the researchers say. This may put further pressure on the well-being of older adults, as well as on the federal and health insurance systems, especially as the number of American adults over the age of 65 is projected to grow more than 50% by 2050.
The results are consistent with other recent research that suggests the health of the most recent generations in the US is worse than that of their predecessors in several respects, says Steven Haas, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State.
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were beginning to see declines in life expectancy among middle-aged Americans, a reversal of a trend of more than a century,” says Haas. “In addition, over the past 30 years, population health in the US has lagged behind that of other high-income countries, and our findings suggest that the US is likely to continue to fall further behind. than their peers.”
The researchers say the findings in gerontology journals could help inform policy to address potentially declining health in our expanding population of older adults.
For the study, 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 a count of nine chronic conditions: heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, cancer (excluding skin cancer), major depressive symptoms, and cognitive decline.
The researchers also explored the variation in specific conditions that drive generational differences in multimorbidity.
They found that newer generations of older adults are more likely to report a greater number of chronic conditions and experience the onset of those conditions earlier in life.
“For example, when comparing those born between 1948 and 1965, called baby boomers, with those born during the last years of the Great Depression (between 1931 and 1941) at similar ages,” says Haas, “baby boomers exhibited a higher number of chronic health conditions. Baby boomers also reported two or more chronic health conditions at younger ages.”
The researchers also found that sociodemographic factors such as race and ethnicity, whether the person was born in the US, childhood socioeconomic circumstances, and childhood health affected multimorbidity risk for all generations.
Among adults with multimorbidity, arthritis and hypertension were the most prevalent conditions for all generations, and there was evidence that major depressive symptoms and diabetes contributed to the observed generational differences in multimorbidity risk.
There could be multiple explanations for the findings, says Nicholas Bishop, an assistant professor at Texas State University.
“Later generations have had access to the most advanced modern medicine for a longer period of their lives, so we can expect them to enjoy better health than those born in previous generations,” says Bishop.
“Although this is partially true, advanced medical treatments may allow people to live with multiple chronic conditions that would once have been fatal, potentially increasing the likelihood that a person will experience multimorbidity.”
It adds that older adults in more recent 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 disease surveillance and measurement, leading to the identification of chronic conditions that were once undiagnosed.
The researchers say that future studies could try to find explanations for these differences in multimorbidity between generations.
Ana Quiñones of the Oregon Health and Science University is a co-author of the study. The National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health helped support this research.