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A Long Life: Good And Bad News For Baby Boomers ... And The Rest Of Us

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Modern healthcare technology has delivered previously undreamed of longevity, sometimes with, but often without, an accompanying quality of life. Medical technology not only has increased the average life span, it seduces us into believing that we can cheat death or bodily limitations. Organ transplants, cardiac catheterizations, and even fertility treatments reinforce the belief that we can all live long lives without having to bear bodies that don't work as they should.

Baby boomers are the beneficiaries of both modern health care and the rewards of a large middle to upper-middle class, in which an extended life is now the rule, rather than the exception. But what is the cost of a long life?

Many boomers are committed to a "staying young forever" approach. Although many older adults provide shining examples of how to stay and feel young, a recent article in the Miami Herald by Ana Veciana-Suarez suggests that the unique stresses of the baby boomers (for example, taking care of aging parents, the presence of their own physical problems, and other reminders of an ambiguous future) are taking their toll.

This fascinating article reports alarming rates of illicit drug use and binge drinking among baby boomers. The problem is not just recreational or attempts to blow off steam; drug abuse, for example, is higher among people in their 50's than ever before. Moreover, boomers are dying from drug abuse, suicide and accidents.

The boomers are also setting another new precedent: higher rates of disability. Several recent studies point to the rising rates of disability among the "young-old." One such study, summarized by American Medical News, found that, consistent with overall declines in reports of physical activity, adults aged 60-69 had the greatest increase in physical limitations. Everyday activities (such as climbing stairs) were decreased, while the frequency of obesity increased. And perhaps even more alarming another recent finding is that just over one-fourth of U.S. adult health care expenses, as well as about 38 percent of all Medicare spending is associated with disability.

So how do we make sense of all of this? Though we could talk about narcissism in the boomers or their adamant refusal to grow-up, another view might be that the prospect of a long life with an uncertain degree of health or illness, is unduly taxing. Baby boomers--many of whose parents are alive but with debilitating illnesses--are first-hand witnesses to the failed promises of medical technology.

As boomers know first-hand, a long life is not a promise of a good old age. The generation above them knows this too. A very elderly woman, helpless and tearful, said to me recently, "I am 98. Isn't it time to die?" Baby boomers look into their own future and picture themselves in frightening scenarios--bodies that don't work and the likelihood of being dependent on others.

So instead of denial or baby boomer bashing, maybe we need to be more thoughtful about how scary it is to age in the 21st century. Boomers know that a very long life can be a pyrrhic victory. Managing that anxiety will be a major challenge for them, and for all of us.

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