Baby boomers limp toward retirement

Americans in their early to mid-50s today report poorer health, more pain and more trouble doing everyday physical tasks than their older peers reported at the same age in years past, a recent analysis has shown. The research, published in print and online this week by the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), was supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a component of the National Institutes of Health.

The study was conducted by Beth J. Soldo, Ph.D., Olivia Mitchell, Ph.D., and John McCabe, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, and Rania Tfaily, Ph.D., of Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario. The newly published report appears as part of NBER’s Working Paper series and follows the analysis’ online appearance in 2006. It will also be published in a refereed volume from Oxford University Press in 2007.

Using a summary health index developed for their analysis, the researchers compared the overall, self-reported health of people in three birth-year groups — those born in 1936-41 (now ages 66 to 71), 1942-47 (now ages 60 to 65) and 1948-53 (now ages 54 to 59). The data came from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationwide, NIA-sponsored survey of more than 20,000 Americans over age 50 that began in 1992. It draws from survey respondents’ answers to questions about their health and well-being when they were all between the ages of 51 and 56. The researchers’ health index blended HRS participants’ ratings of their health, difficulty with physical mobility and agility, and perception of physical pain.

The study showed:

— The two younger groups were less likely than the oldest group to have said their health was “excellent or very good” at 51 to 56 years of age.
— The youngest group reported having more pain, chronic health conditions, and drinking and psychiatric problems than people who were the same age 12 years earlier.
— Compared with the oldest group, the youngest group was more likely to have reported difficulty in walking, climbing steps, getting up from a chair, kneeling or crouching, and doing other normal daily physical tasks.

This new analysis provides some initial data raising the question of whether today’s pre-retirees could reach retirement age in worse shape than their predecessors, with individuals potentially in poorer health than current retirees and possibly increasing health care costs for society. In the past two decades, there has been a dramatic decline in disability among people 65 and older. One recent report of this trend, for example, found that the prevalence of chronic disability among people 65 and older fell from 26.5 percent in 1982 to 19 percent in 2004/2005 (see “Disability Among Older Americans Continues Significant Decline” at .

Researchers and policymakers are vitally interested in whether this trend will continue, accelerate or decelerate with the retirement of the baby boom, a critically important question in planning for health, housing and other needs of this wave of retirees, who begin to turn 65 in 2011.

To reach Beth Soldo, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania, contact Jackie Posey at 215-898-6460 or .

To reach Olivia Mitchell, Ph.D., The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, contact Hilary Farrell at 215-898-0424 or .

The NBER report follows earlier analyses, including an NIA-supported study suggesting that the obesity epidemic, which is driving higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, could threaten the disability decline as well. It will be important to develop and understand new data about pre-retirees to see which direction the boomer cohort will take, says Richard Suzman, Ph.D., director of the NIA’s Behavioral and Social Research Program.

The NIA leads the federal effort supporting and conducting research on aging and the medical, social and behavioral issues of older people. For more information on research and aging, go to Publications on research and on a variety of topics of interest on health and aging can be viewed and ordered by visiting the NIA website or can be ordered by calling toll-free 1-800-222-2225.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation’s Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit

From U.S. NIH

7 thoughts on “Baby boomers limp toward retirement”

  1. Unfortunately, only 1/3 of boomers are workinging
    towards improving their vitality and health, according
    to a Bayer Healthcare survey. They are now being
    referred to as Generation V. My website works directly with the
    2/3 who are limping along to get them to redirect
    their thinking and create a more fulfilled and
    purposeful life.

  2. What does the death rate/55 seconds of boomers have to do with the article? Rate/time is dependant on the absolute number in population and age distribution of the population. I has nothing to do with the illusion of health as “remembered/imagined” from 12 years previous.

  3. This is bad science. Perceptions of how things were 12 years ago suffer from the “good old days” syndrome. People tend to remember the good times rather than the bad ones. Moreover, they tend to exagerate how good it was. The “study” is comparing apples and oranges – how someone feels today with how someone else remembers feeling 12 years ago. Really lame!

  4. This article is just silly–proves nothing! Hasn’t *somebody* been following this cohort’s reported/real “feel good” index in real time?

    However, the sharp increase in advertising “cure-alls” in the MSM may have affected today’s 50ish folks—“ask your doctor if Placebo is right for you”, while showing older people with all sorts of “new” health problems may be contributing to these “feeling worse” self-reports as well…older boomers & war babies grew up seeing people age gracefully & naturally, acccepting certain wear & tear & just coping with it & getting on with life, not bemoaning the problems that come with long life.

  5. If I’m reading this correctly, they asked 65 year olds how they felt when they were 55? How do they compensate for the fact that a 65 year old currently feels worse than he did when he was 55, and thus inflates how well he felt at 55?

  6. I just quit drinking any kind of soda.

    The limps and pain disappeared within days. Agility returned.

    Something in the soda? Any soda, diet or regular.

    A ‘cure they don’t want you to know about’?


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