Aging baby boomers are smoking and drinking less, but overweight and obesity are on the rise, according to a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau. That's especially concerning when you consider the many other diseases and disabilities—including arthritis, type-2 diabetes, heart disease and hindered mobility—that can come with excess body weight.
The percentage of overweight and obese Americans 65 and older has grown: 72% of older men and 67% of older women are now overweight or obese. Baby boomers started reaching age 65 in 2011, and the report, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health, also shows many of these older Americans are not financially prepared to pay for long-term care in nursing homes. That's concerning, since America's aging population, which is now around 40 million, is estimated to double by 2050.
What's the best way to handle overweight and obesity in people 65-plus?
"There are not many studies of weight loss among the elderly. It’s a rich and fertile area," says Dr. Adam Bernstein, research director at the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute. "The prescription would not be the same for a middle-aged person or youth." Bernstein, who was not involved in the report, says it is possible for older men and women to lose weight, though doctors are likely to immediately focus on the consequences of excess body fat, like high blood pressure and erratic blood sugar. "If the clinician makes the determination a person is overweight and no other comorbid conditions, then what seems appropriate is a diet and exercise plan," he says.
Past research published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine has shown the baby boomer generation has its share of pervasive health problems, including high rates of cholesterol and hypertension. The authors concluded that there's a need for policies that encourage prevention efforts and healthy-behavior promotion among boomers.
This new report adds urgency to the call for better health among boomers. Indeed, the costs of not taking action could be severe.
The new Census Bureau report shows that the average cost of a private room in a nursing home in 2010 was $83,585 a year—and less than one fifth of older men and women have the finances to live in a home for more than three years. Medicaid covers long-term care for qualified, low-income seniors, but as the number of people in that group grows, the costs will hurt.
“Most of the long-term care provided to older people today comes from unpaid family members and friends,” Richard Suzman, director of National Institute on Aging's division of behavioral and social research, said in a statement. “Baby boomers had far fewer children than their parents. Combined with higher divorce rates and disrupted family structures, this will result in fewer family members to provide long-term care in the future.”
The findings highlight the need to make healthy changes early. And if we want to cut long-term healthcare costs in the future, Americans need to get healthier.