Maybe it’s their upcoming retirement. Or maybe they worked so hard they never found time for fitness. Maybe they just have bigger fish to fry. Any way you slice it, the data tell the same story: Baby boomers are getting heavier. A lot heavier. And as they grow, so will their burden.
The U.S. Census Bureau just released a new report outlining how much bigger the boomers have gotten. A full 72 percent of American men and 67 percent of women over the age of 65 are overweight or obese, as defined by their body mass index (BMI). On their own, the statistics represent little more than a personal problem. In the context of the entire country, on a timeline stretching 35 years into the future, when the population of 65-plussers will double to a fifth of the total population, health care gets harder.
There is a silver lining. Baby boomers excel when it comes to smoking and alcohol, which is to say they indulge in sensible amounts. Across the board, just over 18 percent of the U.S. population smokes. Just under 10 percent of baby boomers smoke. They also consume light to moderate amounts of alcohol, which research has praised as healthy for both mental and physical well-being. Where they don’t smoke, however, they also don’t exercise. Where they consume alcohol, they overeat. Heart disease kills them more than anything else.
In widening their waistlines, the baby boomers also empty younger generations’ wallets. By 2040, the Census Bureau estimates 80 million people over the age of 65 will be living in the U.S. If the current trend continues, ailing sexagenarians will need the long-term care of a nursing home without any way to pay for their stay. Younger generations will bankroll their health care as they enter hospitals, receive urgent and extended care, and then ask that their failing hearts be put on the nation’s tab.
Doctors have agreed for years, and continue to advise people of any age, that diet and exercise have no rivals when it comes to getting healthy. Whether that advice reaches baby boomers is another matter, as many clinicians opt for treating the signs of personal health, rather than the health itself. If baby boomers have high blood pressure, doctors suggest they take high blood pressure medication. If their cholesterol is too high, they take meds to lower it. And on and on for each successive condition.
“If the clinician makes the determination a person is overweight and no other comorbid conditions,” Dr. Adam Bernstein, research director at the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute told TIME, only then will a doctor conclude “what seems appropriate is a diet and exercise plan.”
The logic behind this, though rather morbid, makes sense. If life were an illness, it would be terminal. By the time someone reaches 65, treating underlying causes takes far more time and energy than an aging retiree probably has or wants to give. Popping four white pills, two blue ones, and a clear horse pill with breakfast leaves the rest of the day open. Plus, older joints and organs succumb to injury sooner. In old age, condition management comes with the practical benefit of injury prevention.
It’s not their problem necessarily, but all this still leaves most of the country to handle financing these prescriptions. “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.
On the one hand, this is liberating for boomers, who can rely on their families to help them in times of crisis. On the other hand, they’re all asking for help at the same time. So unless they’re at peace with straining younger generations to the point of personal sacrifice, the least they could do with their remaining 20 years in Boca is eat the occasional salad and swim a lap or two. They may never get to hear it, but their grandkids will thank them.