More Disabilities in the 60s May Spell Trouble for Baby Boomers

The trends in a new study throw into doubt the notion boomers will be active in their later years.

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Wasn't the coming generation of senior citizens supposed to be the most active of all? The baby boomers may not be power-walking happily into their later years after all, if the trend captured by a new study continues. Researchers from the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California–Los Angeles found that people ages 60 to 69 report more disabilities (things like being unable to walk up 10 steps without rest and having difficulty doing chores and getting dressed) than in years past. While those are not the boomers—the people studied were born before the end of World War II—the researchers pointed out that there are large and none-too-pretty implications if members of that huge demographic group end up becoming similarly burdened by disability. (Who will take care of them all?)

The study, published online in the American Journal of Public Health, wasn't designed to pinpoint the cause of the changes. It simply looked at government survey data from 1988–1994 and 1999–2004 to track changes in disabilities over time. But one possible explanation, the authors wrote, is that while obesity is a problem across the board, African-Americans and Hispanics tend to have higher rates of obesity and lower socioeconomic status, both of which are tied to disability, and a growing proportion of 60-to-69-year-olds are from those ethnic groups. But even controlling for things like weight, health, and demographics, there was still an effect that couldn't be accounted for. Complicating things further is that people over age 70 either showed no change or an improvement in disability rates.

It may be that the 60-somethings in the study had spent more of their lives being overweight or obese, says study coauthor Arun Karlamangla, a geriatrician at UCLA. Those extra years of stress on the body might have produced more disability.

No one has quite figured out how to motivate the obese and overweight to make permanent lifestyle changes that might help them lose weight—and possibly reduce disability. But we do know that there are very few valid reasons for not exercising. (See a slide show of 10 such excuses and why they won't fly, and then check out our 10-week workout routine designed specifically for the over-40 exerciser.). And we also have a pretty good idea of what we should be eating to maximize nutrients and minimize unnecessary calories. If you need another reason to act on all that knowledge, add to the list the fear of spending your golden years too incapacitated to get in and out of bed.