Boomers grow old, and not gracefully

Staff writerJuly 26, 2010 

The generation known as baby boomers may go into old age broke and fat, researchers say.

Those among the first decade of boomers - now at retirement age or within 10 years of it - may find that a combination of unhealthy living and unwise personal finance decisions will leave them in rough shape after age 65.

They may not mind so much, however, because researchers say they'll also be more likely to be stoned on drugs than either their elders or younger people.

The state Division of Aging and Adult Services predicts that by 2030, more than 200,000 people 65 and older will live in Wake County alone, an increase of more than 250 percent over today.

State health statistics show that 55- to 64-year-old Tar Heels exercise less and have more strokes than younger groups. Also, with retirement around the corner, they are more likely than any other group to gamble once or more a week.

Still, the indicators aren't all bad.

North Carolina boomers smoke less than younger generations. And some are still trying to eat right: Seven out of 10 eat green salad at least once a week, the highest figure for any age group.

So what do national and local studies predict will become of that bold, experimental generation once stereotyped as wanting to die before they got old?

Drug use

"This is a population that was involved in drug use in their 20s or 30s and have just continued using," said Pete Delany, director for the Office of Applied Studies at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

A federal snapshot taken between 2002 and 2007 showed that illegal drug use by people in their 50s increased by 46 percent over the five-year period, from about one in 20 to about one in 10.

"Everybody in that group was in the baby boom generation, and there was almost a doubling of drug use," Delaney said

"We know that as you use [drugs] your metabolism changes; you may process the drug out of your system at a slower rate or a different rate."

As people head into their 60s, they are often taking prescription medicines, and doctors aren't sure what the interactions might cause. But some studies show that certain levels of illegal drugs can lead to hypertension.

"Substance abuse is seldom associated with individuals who are nearing or at retirement age," said the authors of the federal report "Illicit Drug Use among Older Adults," released late last year.

Nevertheless, the report says, scientific surveys show that 4 million people older than 50 use drugs illegally, most born in the 1946-1964 years that produced boomers.

"We need to start asking elderly people, 'By the way, do you smoke and use marijuana?'" Delaney said.

Older people affected by drug use will likely increase the demand for Medicaid and Medicare services as the boomers move into retirement years.

Overall health

At the state Center for Health Statistics website, there's more bad news: More than a third of Tar Heels between 55 and 64 are obese.

They're not only fatter than those a decade younger but also heftier than those a decade older. Maybe the 85 percent of first-wave boomers in the state who admit to getting effectively no exercise can be blamed for some of that.

One in six of this group has been told by a doctor that diabetes has affected his or her kidneys - again more than the next younger and next older group.

"My sense is that we are in denial about aging," said Joan Pellettier, director of the Triangle J Area Agency on Aging, a group that coordinates programs affecting older people in seven central North Carolina counties.

"I am big on self-responsibility," said Pelletier, herself a boomer at 58."There are things that we have got to do to at least give us a chance of having a healthy old age."

Experts on aging say the inside dope, if you will, on healthy aging is much the same for older people as for anyone else: eat less, move more. But an emphasis on balance and mobility can help ward off the falls and fractures that can be particularly devastating to older adults.

Pellettier also urges boomers to start thinking about long-term care insurance, coverage that's been made more accessible through recent state and federal legislation.

"I want to get the word out about the things people have to learn before they get to retirement," she said. "I am thinking moving our focus from people who are 60 and older to people that are 50 and older."

Financial well-being

About three-quarters of baby boomers say their retirement plans have lost money in the financial downturn.

Mauricio Soto, a researcher at the Urban Institute, has estimated that the nation's retirement accounts initially lost $2.8 trillion, or about a third of their value, in the stock market, although some of that ground has been recovered.

Frank Smith, a financial adviser who has lived in Raleigh all his life, works to keep his clients ready for old age and retirement through detailed analysis of assets, obligations and continuing income.

"Generally speaking, I'd say most baby boomers are not well prepared, and they're getting down to that last 10 years when you need to get your act together," said Smith, 68.

"Baby boomers' nest eggs were the most severely cracked by Wall Street's meltdown," Pew Research Center researchers wrote.

More than half - about six of 10 - of adults on the brink of retirement say they lost money in the past year in retirement accounts, compared to only 28 percent of those between ages 18 and 29 and 36 percent of seniors age 65 and older, the report said.

"There is a great multitude ... who are behind the eight ball and need assistance and are reluctant to ask for it," Smith said. He also said boomers have not done a good job of saving money.

"It comes to personal responsibility," Smith said. "By the time they are in their 50s, they should have done that prior to seeing me, gaining that first $50,000 or $100,000. It starts growing by 10K a year, and then you've got something to work with."

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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