Emory study finds most baby-boomers fall short of good health

December 05, 2002

Most baby-boomers are not aging well, and as they enter their golden years, the burden and cost of their health care will only increase according to a new Emory University study that found only one in five adults has good, comprehensive mental and physical health.

Baby-boomers composed the largest demographic portion of the survey, and a majority of them fell within the "incompletely healthy" category, signaling that only a few are aging with their health intact, and many have the potential to develop serious illnesses, says Corey Lee Keyes, lead researcher and assistant professor of sociology at Emory. The study appears in the November/December issue of the "American Journal of Health Promotion."

Maintaining a level of full health and vitality is an elusive goal for a vast majority of Americans, and the results of the report demonstrate that health care providers and public health officials need to fundamentally change their approach, says Keyes.

"The current focus on delivering treatment only when people "fall off the cliff"--when they are patently sick--needs to be completely overturned. The problem with such a singular approach is that you're ignoring the vast majority that needs attention as well--specifically in the form of disease prevention and health promotion --before they become ill," Keyes emphasizes. "We have to recognize that there are very different kinds and levels of health. Just because you're not sick doesn't mean you're truly, completely healthy."

Keyes, a proponent of "positive psychology" whose research focuses on the scientific study of optimal functioning, conducted the study with co-author Joseph G. Grzywacz, assistant professor in the family and community medicine department at Wake Forest University's School of Medicine.

In the study, Keyes and Grzywacz surveyed the current state of mental and physical health of a random sample of 3,032 adults between the ages of 25 and 74 in the United States in 1995. They collected information on chronic physical and mental conditions, such as high blood pressure, energy levels, depression and anxiety, and limitations on daily activities such as carrying groceries, walking several blocks, or bathing and dressing.

The researchers found that 19 percent of those surveyed were "completely healthy" with high levels of both physical and mental health and low levels of physical and mental illness. However, a nearly equal number (18.8 percent) was "completely unhealthy," defined as having low levels of health with elevated levels of illness, both mental and physical. The remaining adults, 62.2 percent, fell in to the "incompletely healthy" category, since they reported some degree of mental or physical illness.

Completely healthy individuals, as defined by the study, tended to be male, either 25 to 34 years old or 55 years or older, married and college-educated with higher household incomes. Between African Americans and whites, the survey found significant racial differences only within the large group of incompletely healthy people. In this group, African Americans were found to be more resilient and more likely to be mentally healthy despite poor physical health.

The study did not examine why participants had different ailments, but Keyes says the report demonstrates that the health care system is falling far short of its stated mission of promoting the nation's health. "We have it backwards--we focus first on the disease instead of health," he says. "Rather than providing treatment only when the patient is broken, we need to promote physical and mental health at the same time we prevent the onset of disease."

Keyes is lead editor of "Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived," published this month by the American Psychological Association, and is one of the editors of "Well-Being: Positive Development Throughout the Life Course," to be published in 2003 by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

Emory University Health Sciences Center

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