The size of the aging baby boomer generation is affecting many aspects of American society, not the least of which is the effect on our healthcare system. Approximately 77 million people make up this population of Americans born between 1946 and 1964, following the end of World War II. And they are all approaching senior citizenship, if not already there. Roughly 10,000 Americans turn 50 every day, according to “Audience Insights: Communicating to Boomers (1946–1962)” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The oldest baby boomers turned 65 in 2011, and the U.S. Census Bureau notes that the youngest will reach that age in 2029 — just 14 years away.
Our healthcare system will likely be challenged by this aging population that is living longer but with higher rates of chronic illness. However, understanding the needs, wants, and desires of baby boomers can set the stage for stronger relationships with your patients and better health outcomes. With that in mind, here are five trends driving the health of the aging baby boomer generation along with what they expect from their healthcare team.
1. More Chronic Illness Despite Wellness Focus
The trend in baby boomers’ health is an interesting irony. The CDC’s Health, United States, 2014 report reveals that while the mortality rate among their baby boomer focus group (age 55–64) declined in comparison to the same age group 10 years ago, the number of chronic conditions among them — including diabetes, obesity, and hypertension — has increased. Baby boomer patients with chronic conditions use healthcare to a greater degree, including office visits, tests, prescriptions, procedures, and surgeries.
A JAMA Internal Medicine study published in 2013 found that baby boomers are more overweight and less physically active than the previous generation. The study determined that nearly 39 percent of baby boomers are obese and that more than half do not participate in regular physical activity. It seems, then, that the aging baby boomer generation is not as healthy as its predecessor.
On the other hand, baby boomers are paying more attention to food choices than previous generations. They are reading food labels and know more about the origins of their food products. More Americans, including boomers, are buying organic foods. They are concerned about food quality, the use of additives and insecticides, and the environment. But these healthier choices don’t always lead to healthier seniors. When moderation is not observed, it can still result in higher rates of obesity and obesity-related health conditions.
2. Drug Abuse on the Rise
Drug abuse is another health challenge affecting more aging baby boomers than the generations before or after them. The Wall Street Journal notes that baby boomers in their younger years did more illicit drugs than any other generation, and that this past cultural exposure puts them at greater risk for drug abuse later in life. Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reveal that illicit drug use among 50- to 64-year-olds has steadily increased over the past decade, whereas among the biggest group of users, 18- to 25-year-olds, illicit drug use has remained about the same. The Wall Street Journal also cites 2013 data from the CDC that found that the rate of accidental drug overdose in baby boomers is higher than in 18- to 45-year-olds, and that more baby boomers die each year from accidental drug overdoses (12,000) than from car accidents (9,000). Government researchers expect a whopping 5.7 million Americans over the age of 50 to need substance abuse treatment in the coming years.
Baby boomers have, on average, two major life changes each year, according to the CDC’s “Audience Insights” report, which may include such events as births, deaths, or changes in living situation. Members of this generation are increasingly turning to drugs as they face the pain and losses that can come with aging. Addressing these struggles with your patients provides an opportunity to connect with them and support them more effectively through these challenges.
Two main factors influence this population’s drug problem, according to the Wall Street Journal. The baby boomer generation grew into adulthood with a predilection for mind-altering substances, and we are currently in a time of widespread opioid painkiller use. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that aging baby boomers are using marijuana and pain pills as the most popular means of getting high.
Increased obesity, chronic illness, and drug use among the baby boomer population do not seem to paint a pretty picture for their future. However, the next few trends open a window to better relationships with your aging patients that can help reverse a backslide in their health.
3. Growing Interest in Technology: Health Apps, Tracking Solutions
Technology offers a whole new frontier for patient engagement and health management — and baby boomers are not afraid to use it. While some might assume seniors are technologically challenged, data indicates increasing comfort with new technology among this population. In an April 2014 publication, the Pew Research Center reports that 78 percent of seniors aged 65 and older own a cell phone and that 22 percent own a smartphone. Among the 59 percent of seniors who use the Internet, 71 percent go online every day. They are using mobile technology and other digital tools, which likely includes health information and management. A recent poll reported on by the National Center for Telehealth and Technology found that 75 percent of baby boomers respondents have downloaded at least one mobile health app to their phones, while almost half have downloaded at least six.
Technology is an opportunity to better manage your patients’ care, as well as an opportunity for your patients to better manage their health. Baby boomers are initiating their own management and health education online and on their phones. As their healthcare provider, you can recommend and take advantage of technologies that contribute to self-management and compliance. The following are some technologies to consider for your patients:
- Telehealth technologies are still evolving, but they offer an entry point for practitioners to manage their patients’ health more efficiently. As Healthcare IT News notes, a physician shortage is coming as the number of seniors increases, mortality rates decline, and insurance coverage expands. Telehealth’s monitoring capabilities between visits allows for better planning for the timing and scope of upcoming appointments.
- Technologies that act as digital health assistants may be useful to both patient and physician. Self-reporting is a conundrum of patient wellness, because patients often don’t follow through. However, when a motivated patient is looking for the diagnosis of a perplexing condition, a digital health assistant can arm her physician with much-needed data. Using technology for health journaling makes it easier for a senior with a smartphone to capture a wealth of information about her symptoms, biometrics, and a whole host of lifestyle variables.
- A medication management system may be a critical tool for the aging baby boomer population. Poor medication adherence can lead to a number of negative outcomes for patients, including more office and emergency room visits and hospitalizations. The high number of baby boomers living with chronic illnesses are managing an increasing number of medications, and they probably don’t want to rely on someone else to keep them on track. A medication dispensing service can be a less intrusive way to help your patients take the appropriate medications at the prescribed times.
Baby boomers typically want to play an active role in their healthcare. They may, for example, look up a medical condition online before asking for your opinion, as noted in an AMA Journal of Ethics article. However, they still value a doctor who is willing to be a partner in the management of their health. Because your baby boomer patients are becoming more reliant on technology, they may look to you for recommendations on which medical apps and other technologies are best for their situation. Discussing the options with your senior patients exhibits your desire for them to be informed.
4. Emphasis on Independence
Most baby boomers envision growing old gracefully, remaining independent, and aging in place. And they expect their doctors to support them in this decision. If they are currently healthy, they want to stay that way, and they see the benefit of making good lifestyle choices. As noted above, baby boomers are more conscientious about their food choices and are interested in proper nutrition. Unfortunately, nutrition education in medical school programs is declining. A study published in Academic Medicine notes that in 2009, only 27 percent of schools surveyed offered the minimum requirement of 25 hours set by the National Academy of Sciences, whereas 38 percent of schools met that requirement in 2004. Your tech-savvy baby boomer patients have a wealth of information, accurate or otherwise, at their fingertips, so as a physician in the new millennium, offering up-to-date nutritional support to your patients can set you apart from other practices. That may mean seeking out additional education for yourself or adding support staff with this knowledge to satisfy the “hunger” of your senior patients for good nutritional guidance.
On the other hand, if your patient’s health is compromised in some way, he may be looking for strategies to manage his condition. Baby boomers value options that give them a certain level of choice and that do not require them to move closer to family to receive their care. A small percentage of baby boomers have the financial resources to consider various levels of retirement communities that support their independent lifestyle, but only 9 percent of baby boomers are truly affluent, according to Nielson data cited in “Audience Insights.” A quarter of baby boomers have no savings or investments at all. For many baby boomers, then, the decision to stay in their current homes may be their only choice. Telehealth technologies and medical alert systems help provide the necessary monitoring for these patients to remain independent.
5. Actively Involved in Their Healthcare
As indicated by these trends, the aging baby boomer generation desires a collaborative approach with their medical teams. They are assertive, health-conscious, and engaged in their care. These traits pave the way for medical compliance — as long as your patients believe they’ve been part of the decision-making process. Strategies of shared decision-making build trust when caring for your aging patients. You might suggest, for example, the Mayo Clinic Shared Decision Making National Resource Center, which offers a wealth of information and decision aids to be used by both patient and physician in the clinical setting. When your patients feel as though they are involved in their care and the decisions surrounding it, they become more empowered and therefore more motivated to make healthy choices.
Even with these identifiable trends, it’s important to keep in mind that the 77 million members of the aging baby boomer generation are not all alike. They could be first-time or veteran grandparents, established executives or new entrepreneurs, or traveling or home-based retirees, to name just a few examples. When you get to know your patient individually, you can build the patient-physician relationship that brings your care in line with that person’s values and expectations.