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Published on May 25, 2021

Are you healthier than your parents were at this age?

Healthier Parents

Who was healthier in middle age, you or your parents?

It’s easy to assume that with so much progress in healthcare, we are in better shape than earlier generations. But 24 years-worth of data shows that many people in their 50s and 60s are actually in worse physical shape than their parents were at the same age.

The comparison of generational health is based on a RAND study that looked at 24 years of statistics about the health status of Americans between the ages of 54 and 60, according to a report by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

The researchers found that, overall, the health of people in this age group has deteriorated. They are more likely than their parents to be obese and to have conditions such as diabetes. They are also more prone to be in chronic pain or to have difficulty performing routine daily activities.

Finances play a part: Poorer people are getting sicker at a faster rate than those with more economic security, the study said.

But even those in middle age who can afford to eat well are eating too many of the wrong foods and exercising too little, said Miguel Prieto, MD, an internist with Cape Cod Healthcare’s Bourne Primary Care.

“It seems kind of ironic given the amount of money that people spend on gyms and exercise gear and workout clothes, but apparently we aren’t using them as much as we think we are,” he said.

World health statistics show that the incidence of chronic medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension have skyrocketed, said Dr. Prieto. “And, there seems to be a correlation between the increased intake of processed, calorie-rich foods and decrease in physical activity in the last 50 or so years.”

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped. A survey in February by the American Psychological Association found that 42 percent of Americans said they had gained unwanted weight in the last year.

Not Too Late to Change

Here’s the good news: Even if you’re middle age, it’s not too late to change your habits and improve your health. A European study based on data from more than 23,000 Germans ages 35 to 65 found that people who never smoked, had a body mass index lower than 30, performed at least 3.5 hours of physical activity a week, and ate a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in meat improved their health outcomes. After adjusting for age, sex, educational status and occupation, the chances of developing a chronic disease like diabetes decreased as the number of health factors increased.

In other words, the more people followed healthy guidelines, the better off they were in the long run.

So, what can you do to improve your health in middle age? Here are three important steps:

  1. Quit smoking. It’s difficult for sure, but your doctor and smoking cessation programs can help. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also has tips on how to quit smoking.
  2. Get moving. Just be careful if you have been slouching your way through the pandemic, says Dr. Prieto. “When it comes to exercising when you are in your 50s and 60s, you should start by walking,” he said. “You should not just go ahead and start cycling or running. You have to build up your condition.”
  3. Eat more fruits and vegetables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends one to two cups of fruit and one to three cups of vegetables per day. Dr. Prieto takes it a step further. He recommends a plant-based diet which, he says, has been shown to have the best health outcome. Even if you’re not willing to go full vegan, he suggests aiming for nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. While that might seem like a lot, figure that a large apple equals at least two servings, he says. Add in a handful of blueberries, a small salad and a vegetable with dinner and you’re up to five. Craving a treat? He recommends cooking apple slices in the air fryer and dusting them with pumpkin pie spice.