For more than a century, we Americans had the luxury of believing that each generation would be better off financially than the one before it. Now economists, historians, sociologists and others say this is no longer a given, that younger generations cannot expect the financial security their parents and grandparents enjoyed.
A study in JAMA Internal Medicine has called a similar “truth” into question: That each generation will be healthier than the one before. In fact, when it comes to Baby Boomers, researchers found just the opposite.
Never mind the fact that Baby boomers have been dubbed the Healthiest Generation, since they have the longest life expectancy of any previous generation, and that they were able to exploit advances in medical care and reap the benefits of public health campaigns highlighting the dangers of smoking and unhealthy diets. That moniker may simply no longer apply, since it turns out that they have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol than members of the previous generation.
Only 13% rated their health as “excellent” – while 32% of folks in the older generation rated their health as such.
Some of this, no doubt, is due to simple longevity, as the lead author suggests. That is, when you live longer, you have more time (and opportunity) to develop illness or dysfunction.
But consider this, too: All conditions listed at the end of that paragraph above are almost entirely preventable. (So much for those public health campaigns, we guess.) So it makes sense to ask: What changed between the “Silent Generation” (or, in Tom Brokaw’s phrase, the “Greatest Generation”) and the Boomers?
A partial and cursory list:
- The displacement of a diet rich in whole foods to one dominated by processed, convenience foods. We also eat out much more often, with most of these meals coming from fast food or “fast casual” restaurants. “Convenience” too often means high in salt and unhealthy fats, added sugars and chemical additives.
- Thousands of new and scarcely regulated chemicals released into our environment through industry and the products we use.
- The proliferation of wireless and imaging technologies, surrounding us with more and more electromagnetic pollution.
- Heightened stress, anxiety, fear and other negative emotions in the face of economic upheaval, climate change, social change, work pressures and other factors.
- A 24/7 networked culture that too easily keeps us from getting the rest, sleep, physical activity and face-to-face human connection we need for good health – and too easily fuels the kind of negativity mentioned above.
Above all, we have a culture in which even normal, natural experiences and processes become pathologized and medicalized – and a medical culture that works on the principle of “more is better.” But as we’ve seen, more drugs, more tests and more treatments means more iatrogenic illness and dysfunction (health problems created by medical treatment).
So are the JAMA results really all that surprising?
The good news? Though we create a lot of illness, it’s also within our power to restore and sustain health – even with all the unique barriers and challenges we face. It begins with defining your goals and prioriies. Some prefer to do whatever they want now and take the consequences later. Others want the highest quality of life possible at all times. Different goals, different priorities, different choices.
But the choice is ours. And yours.