As more and more members of the Baby Boomer generation – those born between 1946 and 1964, about 75 million in all – enter retirement age and move from commercial healthcare plans to Medicare, the national insurance program for Americans over the age of 65, the question becomes more urgent how the ever-rising medical costs will be absorbed by society.
Roughly three million people will be added annually to the program over the next two decades or so, and it will affect and likely change every part of healthcare as we know it, according to experts.
Cause for concern does not come from these changing demographics per se but rather the fact that Baby Boomers have turned out to be less healthy and less prepared to shoulder (at least part of) their medical expenses by themselves than previously hoped.
Although the average life expectancy has dramatically increased over the last half century, Boomers are not necessarily better off in terms of their health status than those before them. Many have to cope with serious health issues for decades, and the existing medical system is not prepared for such drawn out crises.
Two-thirds of today’s Medicare beneficiaries suffer from multiple chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, and pulmonary problems, according to surveys. The sickest among them, about four million, or 15 percent, account for almost half of the current annual costs of about $324 billion.
Medicare data show that healthcare spending on one person with just one chronic disease amounts to nearly three times that of someone who has no long-terms ailment.
The good news is that much of these expenses could be reduced with diet and lifestyle improvements. Unfortunately, too many Boomers tend to overindulge, and adhere to a predominantly sedentary lifestyle, says Dr. Dana E. King, a family physician and researcher at West Virginia University who has studied chronic conditions among Baby Boomers for many years. Nearly 40 percent are obese, and more than half don’t get any regular exercise at all, he laments.
Also, he says, patients often rely exclusively on medications as their remedy, when in fact the drugs they are taking should be used in conjunction with lifestyle changes.
In one of his studies, involving 15,000 Baby Boomers, Dr. King found that participants who implemented health-promoting diet and lifestyle changes over a period of just four years reduced their risk of dying from a heart attack by an impressive 40 percent.
With better information and greater awareness of the importance of such changes, we could still stave off the otherwise impending crush on the medical system that will surely occur if the chronic diseases these people are now plagued with are not brought under control, he says.