THURSDAY, Dec. 1, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- The gap between the least healthy and most healthy people has increased substantially among young American adults, new research suggests.
Among those born early in the 20th century and on through the "baby boom" years (1946-1964), health disparities among generations continuously declined in the United States. But the health gap increased for post-baby boomers, especially those born after 1980, according to a report in the December issue of the journal American Sociological Review.
The study also found that health disparity trends tend to increase as people move into middle age, and then decline as they reach old age.
The findings suggest that the disparity between the least healthy and most healthy people will increase for the next one or even two decades as younger generations grow older and replace previous generations, according to lead study author Hui Zheng, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
For the study, Zheng and his colleagues used data collected by the U.S. National Health Interview Survey between 1984 and 2007. The survey includes about 30,000 people each year.
The investigators found that late baby boomers (born from 1955 to 1964) reported better health than any other generation. They also found that self-rated health has significantly declined since the late 1990s, and that a large gap in self-reported health has opened up among people born since 1980, which means that this group is more spread out between five health categories ranging from poor to excellent health.
While the data doesn't reveal why health disparities in people born since 1980 have increased, there are a number of possible explanations, Zheng noted.
For example, income inequality in the United States has substantially increased over the past 30 years, which could affect people's ability to access health care. In addition, the growing obesity problem has increased the number of people in poor health, and a rising number of immigrants has likely changed the distribution of health ratings throughout the nation.
And, Zheng pointed out in a university news release, there is also a growing "digital divide" in access to medical and health information on the Internet. This may contribute to gaps in health knowledge among different groups.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about health disparities.