Report looks at the health of the 'baby boomer' generation

Behind the Headlines

Friday December 9 2016

Less likely to die of infections but more likely to die of lifestyle diseases

Baby boomers enjoy much better health than their predecessors

"Baby boomers should 'stay in work to keep healthy'," reports BBC News, while The Daily Telegraph warns that "Swinging sixty-somethings see swell in sexually transmitted diseases".

Both headlines are prompted by a new report commissioned (and partly written) by the Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies. The report assesses the health of adults aged 50-70, known as the "baby boomers", as many were born during the baby boom that occurred in the post-war era between 1946 and 1964.

In 2014, 8% of the total population in England were aged 75 and over, this number is expected to rise to 13.1% by 2039.

The report looked at data around the social and health factors that affect this age group. It also provides a number of recommendations on how society and the health service can support people through the next phase of their lives, in particular referring to the anticipation of "old age".

Generally, media coverage of the report was balanced, focusing on both the positives and the areas of concern for this group.

 

What does the report say?

The report covers different factors that may affect the generation of baby boomers throughout their life, pointing out areas for policy action.

Recommendations were developed after analysing data from national datasets such as the Health Survey for England 2013, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) from 2012/13, the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, the British Social Attitudes Survey, and the Global Burden of Disease Study. The report covers the following:

Work and employment

It is predicted that by 2020, 30% of British workers will be over the age of 50. This is combined with statistics showing that the highest rates of illness are caused or made worse by work and are reported by working individuals aged 55 and over.

The authors state that 42% of workers aged 50-64 are living with at least one medical condition, but 24% of these individuals suffer from more than one. Evidence shows that the most common conditions in this age group are musculoskeletal (21%), circulatory (17%), and depression and anxiety (8%).

As a result, one chapter of the report focuses entirely on "health and employment" – highlighting the key message that good working conditions are important for health as well as self-esteem.

It identifies the importance of promoting good working conditions for not only the generation of baby boomers but also generations to come.

As it's also well-documented that the presence of multiple comorbidities increases with age – that is having one or more chronic health condition(s) that impact on quality of life. So the report says that this generation of individuals will need to be supported in order to remain productive. Practices such as flexible working could help.

Physical health

Overall, this chapter discusses that there are both positives and areas of concern when it comes to the physical health of the baby boomer generation.

Firstly, as to be expected, life expectancy in this age group has increased, but interestingly morbidity (the prevalence of disease) remains the same when compared to data from 1990.

Additionally, although evidence shows that death rates have declined from the leading causes of disease since 1990 among individuals aged 50-69, coronary heart disease still remains the top cause of death.

However, the most interesting finding identified through this is that the risk factors associated with chronic diseases are modifiable, and therefore preventable. The top three risk factors are smoking, poor diet and a high body mass index (BMI).

A number of risk factors associated with some cancers, such as obesity and alcohol consumption, are also easily avoided.

Dame Sally Davies asks that surveillance systems are strengthened for high burden diseases such as musculoskeletal disease and sensory impairment (visual and hearing). These types of conditions have a great impact on the quality of life and productivity in the population.

She also draws attention to the limited datasets available on oral health and calls for improvement on that front.

Lifestyle factors

The report highlights key factors affecting health such as smoking, alcohol, diet and physical activity.

Data shows that baby boomers had lower rates of smoking than individuals of the same age 20 years ago.

However, Dame Sally Davies mentions that 66% of men in that age group and 71% of women have not been advised to stop smoking by a doctor or a nurse.

Additionally, baby boomer men were drinking less in terms of units per week than the previous generation, but women of the same age have been reported to be drinking more.

Individuals in their 50s were also found to be less active than those in the same age group 10 years ago. An increase in obesity rates was also documented in the generation.

As these lifestyle factors are all modifiable, the calls for action around this topic were about strengthening local smoking support services, promoting awareness of metabolic risk factors such as waist circumference and BMI, and reducing socio-economic inequalities across the country.

Screening & Immunisation

There was particular focus on the uptake and awareness of both screening and immunisation campaigns across England.

They found that the uptake of bowel cancer, breast cancer and abdominal aortic aneurysm screening was not optimal – which is cause for concern since bowel cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths. This calls for improvement in raising awareness of the importance of the screening programmes.

Uptake for both the pneumococcal and flu vaccine is greater than 70% among individuals over the age of 65. The success of this programme is shown through the decline in the incidence of those diseases in 50-70 year olds.

Mental health

Data from 2007 sheds light on the high levels of mental health problems in people over the age of 50, with 18% of this group having experienced depression or anxiety classified as severe. These levels are double those observed in the same age group born before 1945.

There is also an increase in levels of reported cognitive problems such as autism and poor concentration and memory. These important findings highlight the unmet need in this age group, and the need to strengthen the provision of services around these conditions.

Sexual health

In 2014, only 4% of the total number of newly diagnosed cases of STIs was reported in 50-70 year olds. But the proportion of people living with HIV in this age group has doubled over the past 10 years.

This chapter points out the need for improvement in health promotion messages related to sexual health, as they currently focus on the younger population.

It is important to address taboo topics and raise awareness when supporting adults in this age group, as problems around sexual activity and sexual function can have a negative impact on the quality of life.

 

Conclusion

The baby boomer generation represents the first generation of babies to have grown up with the NHS (founded in 1948).

Thankfully, health issues such as death during childbirth, high levels of child mortality and high rates of fatal infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, are largely a thing of a past.

But new challenges have arisen. So-called "lifestyle diseases" such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, are now a leading cause of death in England (as well as other developed countries).

Also, age-related conditions such as dementia are far more common than in previous decades.

Everyone can improve their chances of having a healthier, longer life through regular exercise, a healthy diet, avoiding smoking and moderating the amount of alcohol they drink.

Read more health advice for women and men over 60.  

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow NHS Choices on TwitterJoin the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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