COLUMBUS, Ohio — While it’s a common belief that most things get better with each passing generation, it appears health is not one of them. Researchers from The Ohio State University find the overall health of younger generations in America is getting worse over time. Specifically, millennials and members of Generation X are facing higher risks of disease and death than their Baby Boomer parents.
The study reveals Generation X (born between 1965-1980) and Generation Y (or millennials, born 1981-99) are displaying poorer physical health and engaging in more unhealthy behaviors. This includes alcohol use, smoking, and suffering from higher rates of depression and anxiety.
“The worsening health profiles we found in Gen X and Gen Y is alarming,” says lead author and professor of sociology Hui Zheng in a university release. “If we don’t find a way to slow this trend, we are potentially going to see an expansion of morbidity and mortality rates in the United States as these generations get older.”
Along with graduate student Paola Echave, Zheng examined health data on nearly 700,000 people during the study. The information comes from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1988-2016 and the National Health Interview Survey 1997-2018; both conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics.
American metabolism in decline
Researchers studied eight key markers which lead to metabolic syndrome. This condition encompasses a plethora of medical problems including heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and diabetes. Markers for these diseases range from a large waist circumference, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and a higher body mass index (BMI). The team also examined a marker for chronic inflammation (low urinary albumin) and one for renal function (creatinine clearance).
The results reveal that, since the Baby Boomer generation, metabolic syndrome is the main health issue increasing among whites. For Black Americans, chronic inflammation is increasing, particularly among men.
“The declining health trends in recent generations is a shocking finding,” Zheng adds. “It suggests we may have a challenging health prospect in the United States in coming years.”
What’s causing the health problems among younger generations?
Although the review could not definitively say what’s making younger Americans sicker, researchers examined two possible causes — obesity and smoking. Study authors believe rising obesity rates could help partially explain the increases in metabolic syndrome however, they don’t account for the spike in chronic inflammation.
The other possible cause of declining health, smoking, is one of the behaviors researchers find is increasing among younger generations. The study reveals that the odds of heavy drinking continues to go up since late-Gen X (people born between 1973-80). This is particularly true among men.
The use of street drugs peaked in the late-Boomer era (born 1956-64) and then went down. Unfortunately, the trend rose again during late-Gen X. For Hispanic Americans, their drug use has continued to increase over time, according to the report.
Surprisingly, the study finds the odds someone will smoke continues to rise since the Baby Boomer era. It may seem confusing, with overall smoking rates dropping, but Zheng has an explanation.
“One possibility is that people in older generations are quitting smoking in larger numbers while younger generations are more likely to start smoking,” the study author says. “But we need further research to see if that is correct.”
Are health trends even worse than we think?
Along with bad habits, the report finds anxiety and depression rates have increased among whites from the War Babies generation (born 1943-45) through Generation Y. Researchers note anxiety and depression rates have stayed relatively flat since the Baby Boomer era for Blacks.
Zheng cautions that researchers may not even be seeing the full scope of health issues impacting younger generations.
“People in Gen X and Gen Y are still relatively young, so we may be underestimating their health problems,” the OSU professor explains. “When they get older and chronic diseases become more prevalent, we’ll have a better view of their health status.”
Zheng notes that life expectancy has already taken a major hit due to the coronavirus pandemic in recent months. The trend may only get worse in the years to come.
“Our results suggest that without effective policy interventions, these disturbing trends won’t be temporary, but a battle we’ll have to continue to fight.”
The study appears in the American Journal of Epidemiology.