By Wilfredo Abesamis, M.D., Scripps Health
As the first wave of “Baby Boomers” reaches retirement age and becomes eligible for Medicare, attention is being drawn to the health concerns that seem most prevalent among this generation.
About 76 million people were born during the Baby Boom years, which range from 1946 to 1964. Now in their 50s and 60s, Boomers are not only dealing with health issues such as diabetes and heart disease that are common to all adults, but also problems related to aging.
Following are the top 10 health concerns of the Baby Boom generation:
1. Type 2 diabetes
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011 the percentage of diagnosed type 2 diabetes among people aged 65-74 was more than 13 times that of people younger than 45 years of age. Diabetes increases the risk of serious health problems such as high blood pressure, vision loss, kidney disease, nerve damage, foot problems, amputation and cardiovascular disease. People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or a stroke.
Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for diabetes. With lifestyle changes and medical treatment, diabetes and its associated risks can be managed.
- Cardiovascular Disease
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women over age 60, and after age 45, the risk of developing it increases significantly. Coronary artery disease, in which the arteries that deliver blood to the heart become narrowed or blocked, is the most common type of heart disease and a main cause of heart attacks.
In the U.S., about one in three adults has high blood pressure. The higher the pressure, the greater the risk or serious cardiovascular problems; with each 20mmHg increase in systolic blood pressure and 10 mmHg diastolic, the risk of stroke and heart attack doubles. After age 50, a systolic blood pressure above 140 mmHg is a greater risk factor for stroke and heart disease than diastolic blood pressure.
You can help can lower your heart disease risk by avoiding tobacco use, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and maintaining a healthy weight through a low-salt, low-fat diet and plenty of exercise. If you’re between ages 45 and 79, ask your doctor if you would benefit from taking aspirin to lower your risk of heart attack.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death among people age 65 and older. Aging brings an increased risk of several types of cancer, including lung, skin colon, breast and prostate cancer. The link between lung cancer and tobacco use wasn’t fully recognized until the 1960s, when the first groups of Boomers were teens and young adults, and many in this generation smoked cigarettes for decades. Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke can help reduce the risk for developing lung cancer. Regular screenings for skin, colon, breast and prostate cancer can catch these diseases early while they are still highly treatable.
Depression affects more than 6.5 million Americans aged 65 or older. Many have struggled with depression throughout their lives, although some may experience it for the first time later in life.
Often, symptoms are mistaken for other conditions such as dementia, or accepted as a normal part of aging (which it is not). In fact, late-life depression may increases risk for medical illness and cognitive decline. Research has shown that treatment is effective and may even lead to positive changes in brain chemistry.
- Eye Problems
It’s inevitable: If you live long enough, you will develop cataracts. Cataracts affect nearly 20.5 million Americans age 40 and older, and by age 80, more than half of all Americans have them. Fortunately, advancements in research and technology have improved the precision and safety of cataract surgery, resulting in faster surgeries, easier and shorter recoveries, and in some cases, better vision than before surgery.
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in people over age 55. It is a progressive disease; at first, vision loss may be barely perceptible. As it advances, nearly all central vision may be lost. However, since it doesn’t affect peripheral vision, complete vision loss is rare. With treatment, the progression of the disease may be stopped or slowed.
Annual eye exams are important to help identify cataracts, macular degeneration and other vision problems in their earliest stages.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. While the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are age 65 and older, up to 5 percent begin to experience symptoms in their 50s or even their 40s. This is known as early-onset Alzheimer’s, and it is becoming more prevalent. The highest risk of death from the disease is in people age 65 or older, and the death rate increases with age.
According to Alzheimer’s Association, growing evidence suggests a close link between brain health and overall health of the heart and blood vessels. Since the brain receives nutrients and oxygen from blood, a healthy cardiovascular system helps to ensure that plenty of nutrient-rich blood reaches the brain.
- Arthritis and Joint Replacement
When the cartilage that cushions your bones at the joints and allows them to glide smoothly over each other begins to break down and wear away, the bones begin to rub together. The resulting pain, swelling and stiffness is called osteoarthritis. While it is a normal part of aging, it can also be caused by physical activity over a long period of time—and many Boomers are physically active. Treatment ranges from pain medications to joint replacement.
After age 50, as many as half of all women will break a bone due to osteoporosis. However, it’s not just a woman’s disease. By age 65 or 70, men and women lose bone mass at the same rate and have a decrease in the amount of calcium their bones absorb. Tobacco and alcohol use earlier in life can increase risk, as can being underweight. Talk to your doctor about calcium supplements and other treatments that can help prevent osteoporosis.
Influenza and pneumonia and are among the top 10 causes of death for older adults. Vaccinations are no widely available for both diseases and are usually covered by insurance or offered at a very low coast. Ask your doctor if you should be vaccinated.
- “Sandwich Generation” Stress
In addition to caring for their own families, many Boomers are often caring for elderly parents as well. The stress of being a dual caregiver can be significant, especially on individuals who are also working outside the home, struggling financially, or dealing with other challenges. As a result of giving so much time and attention to others, these Boomers may not take proper care of themselves. Lack of sleep, inadequate diets and no time for exercise can take their toll. If you are feeling an unusual amount of stress, talk with your family or physician about how you can take some of the pressure off of yourself.
If you are concerned about these or any other health issues, make an appointment with your physician. Identifying and addressing health problems early, as well as learning how to prevent them, are vital to lifelong wellness.
Wilfredo Abesamis, M.D., is an internal medicine specialist with Scripps. “To Your Health” is brought to you by the physicians and staff at Scripps. For more information or a physician referral, call 1-800-SCRIPPS or visit www.scripps.org.