Taking care of the boomers

The baby boom generation is the largest age cohort in American history, but it seems they’re underrepresented in the doctor’s office when it comes to preventive services such as adult immunizations and screenings, a new report has found.

The study, part of a collaborative project by the American Medical Association, the American Association of Retired Persons and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was released last month. It calls on the broader use of clinical preventive services among adults ages 50 to 64.

From the report:

By 2015, one of every five Americans will be between the ages of 50 and 64. As they enter this age group, 70 percent will already be diagnosed with at least one chronic condition and nearly half will have two or more. The resulting disease and disability may seriously compromise their ability to carry out the multiple roles they play at this point in their lives. National experts agree on a set of recommended clinical preventive services that can help detect many of these diseases, delay their onset, or identify them early in their most treatable stages. Despite the cost-effectiveness of many of these services, the percent of adults who are up to date on receiving them is low.

The sheer numbers of the baby-boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, make it urgent to address their health needs sooner rather than later. In 2007, the report notes, there were nearly 55 million American adults between the ages of 50 and 64. By 2015, there will be nearly 63 million boomers in middle age, a time when chronic health issues have a way of sneaking up on us.

Health care spending among Americans in their middle years has been growing, according to a survey by the Medical Expenditure Panel of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. The survey found that adults ages 45 to 64 incurred $370 billion in health care expenses in 2006 – $183 billion higher than in 1996. Average spending per individual also rose, because of both increasing use of services and the higher cost of health care services.

More widespread screening and preventive care could help catch many health issues sooner and lower some of the costs associated with illness and chronic disease, the joint AMA/AARP/CDC report says. The report proposes 14 key indicators on which providers should focus: screening for cholesterol, cervical cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer; monitoring the risk for obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, risky alcohol use and moderate depression; vaccinations for pneumonia and influenza; promotion of physical activity; and ensuring men and women ages 50 to 64 are up to date with specific screening and preventive care.

How do the boomers stack up on these measures? They fare pretty well on some of them. For instance, nearly 90 percent of people in the 50-to-64-year-old age group have had a cholesterol screening within the past five years, and 80 percent of women have had a mammogram within the past two years. Only about half, however, have been screened for colorectal cancer, 42 percent have had a flu shot within the past year, and 27 percent report no leisure-time activity within the past month.

It’s interesting to learn that boomers, who are often unfairly perceived as entitled and self-absorbed, aren’t always up to date when it comes to their health care. Then again, this generation has always been far more diverse than they’re given credit for. While some of them were grooving at Woodstock, others were in the jungles of Vietnam. Some lived the flashy young urban professional lifestyle in the 1980s while others held down jobs and raised families.

It’s possible that many middle-aged boomers aren’t aware of what screenings and preventive services they should be receiving. Or maybe they simply don’t see themselves as – perish the thought- getting older.

Reaching out to a population this vast and this diverse isn’t going to be easy, so the report recommends the development of collaborative strategies involving state and national public health practitioners, clinical service providers, policymakers and others to “make effective screening, counseling, vaccinations and other recommended services a routine part of prevention for the nation’s adults.”

There’s a fair amount of debate about the cost-vs.-benefit of screening and prevention among those who are younger and those who are elderly. The consensus seems more clear that among the middle-aged, the benefit generally outweighs the cost and that it’s not too late for this age group to start reaping some of those benefits.

Photo: Jimi Hendrix at the Woodstock Festival, 1969. Associated Press file photo.

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