Older adults more likely to have multiple health ailments than prior generations

Later-born generations of older adults in the United States are more likely to have a greater number of chronic health conditions than the generations that preceded them, according to a study conducted by Penn State and Texas State University.

According to the researchers, the increasing frequency of reporting multiple chronic health conditions — or multimorbidity — represents a substantial threat to the health of aging populations. This may place increased strain on the well-being of older adults, as well as medical and federal insurance systems, especially as the number of U.S. adults older than age 65 is projected to grow by more than 50% by 2050.

Steven Haas, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, said the results fit with other recent research that suggests the health of more recent generations in the U.S. is worse than that their predecessors in a number of ways.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were beginning to see declines in life expectancy among middle-aged Americans, a reversal of more than a century long trend,” Haas said. “Furthermore, the past 30 years has seen population health in the U.S. fall behind that in other high-income countries, and our findings suggest that the U.S. is likely to continue to fall further behind our peers.”

The researchers said the findings could help inform policy to address the potentially diminishing health in our expanding population of older adults. The paper was recently published in The Journals of Gerontology, and was also worked on by Ana Quiñones, Oregon Health & Science University.

For the study, the researchers examined data about adults aged 51 years and older from the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of aging Americans. The study measured multimorbidity using a count of nine chronic conditions: heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, lung disease, cancer (excluding skin cancer), high depressive symptoms and cognitive impairment. The researchers also explored variation in the specific conditions driving generational differences in multimorbidity.

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