Years ago, I interviewed Dr. Robert Butler, the father of gerontology, for a podcast series I had at the time. With complete self-interest, I asked how he thought Baby Boomers would fare as they aged, fully expecting a bright future as the result of our athleticism and the benefits of good health care. I was surprised at his response that Baby Boomers as a group could look forward to a miserable old age due to obesity.
Obesity would lead to a series of health challenges including diabetes, heart disease and orthopedic and back injuries from carrying around so much extra weight. It turns out that I was talking with Dr. Butler at the height of the obesity epidemic. Fortunately,according to a recent article in The New York Times, "Americans are Finally Eating Less, there's now some evidence of a turnaround. The biggest drop is in the amount of soda and other sweetened beverages people are eating. But there's also a reduction in refined carbohydrates, milk and unsweetened beverages, salty snacks, and the amount of food in general.
This is very good news both on an individual and a societal level. Individually, healthier eating can lead to less illness and disability. As a country, we have no way to take care of tens of millions of disabled Baby Boomers. The longer we keep ourselves healthy and able to take care of ourselves, the more likely we and other taxpayers will be able to pay for our care when the need arises.
Most of us will need care at the end of our lives, whether that be three weeks, three months, three years, or much longer. The care may relatively light, getting us going in the morning or simply help in trips to the doctors. Or it could be heavy, around the clock monitoring if we have dementia or full nursing care for an illness or chronic condition. The problem in terms of planning is that none of us can know for sure which group we will fall into. While we know statistically that over all people who eat well and exercises moderately are on average more healthy than overeating couch potatoes, averages aren't individuals. Some people take great care of themselves and still have a debilitating stroke or Alzheimer's disease. Other's smoke a pack a day and eat everything in sight, and still live to 90 in perfect health.
But we may as well play the odds. The odds are that the healthier we eat and the more we exercise (up to a reasonable level), the longer and healthier we'll live. We'll also be less likely to have dementia. While certain types of dementia including Alzheimer's disease may be out of our control, we may be able to prevent multi infarct dementia resulting from many small strokes.
In terms of exercise, a recently released report suggests that while there's a lot of benefit to having a moderate exercise routine, extreme exercise doesn't help much more. On the other hand, long-term health seems to be a poor motivator for exercise. According to another recent study, also reported in The New York Times, people are more likely to exercise for the more immediate rewards of more energy, a better mood, less stress and interacting with family and friends, than for any long-term health benefits.
So, eat well and exercise for the immediate benefits of feeling better; if you're lucky, it may stave off longer-term illness or disability; and if enough of us Baby Boomers do this, we may not overwhelm our health and chronic care systems.