3.13.2013

Baby Boomers Less Likely to be Obese?

This is a counter-intuitive finding: Americans born after World War II - between 1946 and 1964 - are less likely to develop "abdominal obesity" than either the previous generation (the so-called Silent Generation) or the following one (the X Generation). 

This was the surprising result of a recent study by Dr. Whitney Robinson of University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health and her colleagues using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). It was reported by Arti Virkud, a Columbia University Med student on the 2X2 Project who suggested that the explanation might lie in Baby Boomers' lifestyle.

As she writes: " Baby Boomers have been less exposed to factors that are linked to obesity, such as psychosocial and socioeconomic stress. The prosperity of the post-World War II U.S. may be a contributor to the reduced levels of stress. The effect was considerably higher in women in the Baby Boomer group than men in the same group."

Women are more concerned about their figure than men, nothing new here. Yet the finding is a little strange: medical studies show that women are normally the fatter sex for biological reasons (more body fat: 25% for women as against 15% for men; female hormones convert fat more easily; birth control pills have a fattening effect). So if boomer women show less tendency to fat than boomer men, it comes as a real surprise.

The other surprise is the suggestion that post World War II prosperity has been a major stress-reducing factor for boomers. In my view, this is difficult to believe. The period when boomers reached adulthood, starting in the 1970s, certainly wasn't a time of prosperity but of major economic upheaval: oil prices were multiplied, the dollar went off the gold exchange standard, economic regulations were loosened and there was a huge shift to an unregulated market (the so-called Washington consensus). Those were the years when income inequality and the famous one percent recently decried by Occupy Wall Street took off. Those were the years when Wall Street went through scary ups and downs: apart from technical hiccups, there was the bursting of the 2001 technology bubble, the so-called dot.com burst, and then the 2008 Big Recession.

Not to mention 9/11 and the war on terrorism.

Hardly a stress-free time for boomers, many of whom lost their job, couldn't sell their business when they wanted to and had to postpone retirement.

So what is it that makes the boomer generation thinner? 

One possibility is that the boomer generation is largely responsible for society's fixation on remaining young and looking young. In the 1950s, opinion setters were the elderly. That changed in the 1960s with the huge wave of boomers getting a university education - many more than ever before. As a result boomers began to call the shots and set public opinion, on human rights, feminism, the ecology and more. They, and not the elderly, became the opinion setters. And of course, they were young!

Young was beautiful. Young was cool.

As they matured into adulthood, a whole industry sprang up around boomers to help them keep their youthful looks and stay cool, from special creams to plastic surgery. Staying thin, watching one's figure, going on diets has become a leitmotiv of boomer living styles. Doubt it? The latest evidence of boomers' eating habits, coming from a research in Australia, shows that their food preferences (soups, salads) are the healhiest of all generations.

My personal view on all this is that the time has come for boomers to take a step back and consider the transition to the next stage in their lives. This is where literature has a role to play to help those boomers who are prone to meditate and consider their next steps. This is what Boomer lit is all about.

For me, literature is not just there for entertainment. It's also a  (fun) way for society to ask itself some hard questions about pressing issues. In particular,how boomers intend to address aging. This is an inevitable stage in life for boomers who now find themselves sandwiched between the younger generation, many of whom are still looking for a job or looking again, and the older generation that is now entering their last act in life, not the Third Act but the Fourth. And the Fourth Act is where the physical problems accumulate and help is needed...

Not an easy time for boomers! This is why I'm convinced Boomer lit has a special role to play, just like YA lit did when boomers left their teen years behind and had to face adulthood back in the 1960s and 70s - a guiding role for a literature that asks questions and (sometimes) provides answers. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is that special position boomers find themselves in, as they are "sandwiched-between-generations". It is certainly the source and inspiration for really good stories, both in literature and in films - notably a movie like The Descendants depicting a father facing the loss of a spouse and caught between  his rebellious daughters and an inescapable family heritage. If you haven't seen it, here's the movie trailer, it's a film you don't want to miss:



 
What is interesting though is the idea that one can learn  more from epidemiological studies that compare health based on the generation people were born into than from the usual standard studies that consider the population as a whole.  It is undeniable that so far the latter have often come up with hard-to-believe resuls. Notably the study  that told us a month ago that boomers are aging poorly and are in worse health than their parents (see articles below, there were several, the news flew around the Net, no doubt to the glee of the other generations...). 

The trouble is: this is neither convincing as an argument nor a particularly useful way to look at it. It is clear that their parents who have survived to an older age are the stronger ones, those who have overcome the threats of early cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's etc. By contrast, most boomers still haven't died, not even those in poor health have gone...So overall, it is only natural that boomers' health should appear poorer than that of the (few) surviving elders! No, clearly the way to go about this is to consider and compare generations at the same age: we won't really know whether boomers are aging poorly and dying sooner than their parents until they  have reached the same age as their parents!

So studies that look in depth at a single generation are welcome. An approach that I hope scientists will pursue so they can finally tell us what is so special about boomers. And, as Ellen Jacob mentioned in her excellent article on Examiner.com, the "times, they are a-changing especially for baby boomers": an estimated 20,000 boomers will retire each day over the next twenty years. Get ready for a retiree tsunami!
  Scientists should examine what the impact of this change in boomers' lives will have on society. Unless we writers do it before them with Boomer lit...I'm not kidding! I know Science and Literature play different roles in society, but they could (and sometimes are) complementary, why not? What's your take, what role do you see for Boomer lit?

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