Growing Old, Baby-Boomer Style

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CBS/AP
In 1946, 3.4 million babies were born in the U.S., a jump of 22% from the previous year. The surge of births continued, year after year, until 1964. By that time 78 million "baby boomers" had joined the population, creating a huge demographic bulge that flourished in America's postwar prosperity. These children acquired more education than any previous generation; many grew up projecting a rebellious, idealistic attitude that promised to reshape society.

Now, with the first of them turning 60, the baby boomers are about to do something utterly conventional and predictable. They're going to start getting old and begin developing health problems. They're also going to retire from the workforce.

In true baby boomer style, however, they will probably do these things in a new way.

Boomers are expected to live longer than any previous generation of Americans. Of the 3.4 million born in 1946 -- including Bill Clinton, George and Laura Bush, Donald Trump, Susan Sarandon, Steven Spielberg, and Sylvester Stallone -- 2.8 million are still alive. The men can expect to live another 22 years, the women another 25.

By 2030, when the first baby boomers reach 84, the number of Americans over 65 will have grown by 75% to 69 million. That means more than 20% of the population will be over 65, compared with only 13% today. More than 35% will be over 50.

One big question looms over these developments: Will those years be vigorous and healthy, or will baby boomers sink into the pain and disability of chronic disease? A lot hangs on the answer.

Will Boomers Stay Healthy?

Baby boomers now make up 26% of the U.S. population. A fragile, dependent population of aging boomers would place tremendous demands on Medicare, and require lots of support from professional caregivers and the boomers' own children.

Widespread obesity among boomers, combined with lack of exercise, could lead to an epidemic of diabetes, which dramatically accelerates aging and leads to a host of chronic diseases. The number of obese Americans 55-64 has jumped from 31% (1988-1994) to 39% (1999-2002), according to Health, United States, 2005, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Other signs suggest, however, that boomers will enjoy not just increased longevity but better health as well. Since 1950, the death rate for heart disease has dropped by 60% and for stroke by 70%, according to Health, United States. Since 1990 the death rate for cancer has dropped by 10%.

That suggests that many boomers may be aging more slowly than previous generations because of healthy habits, such as less smoking and more exercise. Maybe 60 really is the new 50.

"The influence of aging on society depends on which view you accept," Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, tells WebMD. "Longer life spans would be a burden if additional years were spent in a frail, dependent condition, but I don't hold that pessimistic view. I think there's a lot of evidence that people are healthier mentally and physically than they used to be."