Obesity, Blood Pressure Woes Haunt Aging Boomers

But life expectancy has hit an all-time high, annual U.S. health report finds

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Dec. 8, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Half of all Americans closing in on their Medicare years have high blood pressure, while two out of five are obese, the U.S. government announced Thursday in its annual summary of the nation's well-being.

Still, the health of the nation as a whole continues to improve as life expectancy hit an all-time high and deaths from heart disease, stroke and cancer continue to decline, according to Health, United States, 2005, which was released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This year's report, based on data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics, features an in-depth look at the 55-to-64 demographic, the oldest of the Baby Boomers and the fastest-growing segment of the population.

With their ranks expected to swell from 29 million in 2004 to 40 million in 2014, their health may well be a harbinger for the rest of the nation, and provide important clues for the future of health programs and policies for the elderly.

"I call them the vanguard of the Baby Boomers," said Amy Bernstein, director of the report and chief of the analytical studies branch at the National Center for Health Statistics. "Looking at their experience shows that risk factors like obesity and hypertension are going in the wrong direction and things are being squeezed."

To underscore her point, the report found that 40 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds were obese, up from 31 percent in the 2003 report.

The report also found that use of prescription drugs skyrocketed, with the rate of cholesterol-lowering drugs roughly tripling among men and women from 1995-96 to 2002-03.

People within the 55-to-64 age range also had more frequent and more severe health problems, including diabetes and heart disease, than younger people.

"They are really at risk because they are starting to have health problems," Bernstein said.

Blacks and Hispanics in this age group were even more likely to be dealing with chronic and debilitating disease and to lack health insurance. Hispanics and American Indians under 65 years of age were more likely to have no health insurance coverage than those in other racial and ethnic groups. In 2003, persons of Mexican descent were the most likely to lack health insurance -- 38 percent. Non-Hispanic whites were the least likely to lack coverage, 12 percent.

Overall, however, the pre-Medicare Baby Boomers were more likely to have health insurance than other adult age groups.

The report also found that in 2003, life expectancy at birth for the total population hit an all-time high at 77.6 years, up from 75.4 years in 1990.

And deaths from heart disease, stroke and cancer declined between 2 percent and 5 percent.

But along with that longevity comes a greater prevalence of chronic diseases.

And while gains in health care and well-being continue to be made, they're happening more slowly than in the past.

"Things are getting better, but they're not getting better as fast as they used to be," Bernstein said. "It's not leveling off, but it's not increasing as rapidly as we like."

Among the report's findings:

  • The United States spent $1.7 trillion, or $5,671 for every man, woman and child, on health care in 2003.
  • The average annual rate of increase for prescription drug expenditures was higher than for any other category of health expenditure, a trend that began in 1995.
  • More than 9 percent of people aged 20 and older and about one-fifth of adults 60 and older had diabetes in the period 1999 to 2002.
  • The prevalence of overweight and obesity among adults 20 to 74 years of age increased from 47 percent in 1976-80 to 65 percent in 1999-2002.
  • Major disparities in health and health care exist between socioeconomic, racial, ethnic and insurance-status groups. Overall mortality was 30 percent higher for black Americans than for white Americans, although the gap has narrowed since 1990, when it was 37 percent.
  • In 2003, adults living in poverty were about twice as likely to report vision trouble as higher-income adults, and almost twice as likely to report having had an asthma attack in the past year.
  • More than one-quarter of all adults experienced lower back pain within the past three months, while 15 percent had severe headaches or migraines. Fifteen percent also reported neck pain.
  • Two-thirds of high school students exercised regularly, but only one-third of adults reported being physically active during their leisure time.
  • The rapid fall-off in cigarette smoking since the Surgeon General's landmark 1964 report has slowed recently, with 24 percent of men and 19 percent of women still smoking in 2003.
  • Infant mortality continued to decline in 2003, to 6.9 deaths per 1,000 live births.

More information

View the full report at the National Center for Health Statistics.

SOURCES: Amy Bernstein, Sc.D., chief, analytical studies branch, National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, Md.; Dec. 9, 2005, Health, United States, 2005, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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