Two titanic forces are shaping society’s views of aging and health, one uplifting, one destructive. Which will prevail? In the first article of this two-part series, Brent Green addresses “the state of Boomer health”and the grave, looming threats to a generation's collective well-being.
The boy lay pensively inside an oxygen tent, struggling to breathe the cold, aseptic air; nurses and doctors gathered curiously around their small patient. The child was frightened by this sea of white coats, not knowing if their appearance might precede some other invasive treatment for his inability to breathe.
The child had almost died two days earlier from asthmatic bronchoconstriction. Rushed to the hospital emergency room and then stablelized, his heart raced from fear of these doctors plus the speedy effects of epinephrine surging through his bloodstream.
Ten year later, the child had “outgrown” his acute asthma attacks and was becoming a rebellious teenager. Since this was the mid-1960s, around 50% of adult men in the United States smoked cigarettes, the 20th century symbol of iconoclastic culture, the rise of Marlboro Man.
Hollywood icons such as Sammy Davis Jr., Yul Brynner, George Peppard and Steve McQueen popularized the habit. A monolithic tobacco industry employed marketing trickery to make the dangerous habit appear benign if not downright healthful. Smoking was the cultural norm celebrated in marketing and movies.
The teenager became hooked on cigarettes before the United States Surgeon General announced in 1965 that cigarette smoking could be the cause of lung cancer and other serious diseases.
By the time this teenager became a college graduate student in psychology, he was smoking a pack of cigarettes per day, and lung abuse was beginning to take a toll on his health.
The person I’m describing is me. Afflicted by asthma in childhood and addicted to cigarettes in youth, I owe my health today to a man and a philosophy of living that he personified. And to me this man’s life also symbolizes one of two powerful forces that are fighting to control the nation’s collective consciousness about its aging population.
With Baby Boomers passing the thresholds of 50 and 60, the nation will soon experience a veritable explosion of so-called seniors. By 2030, all Boomers will be older than 65, filling out a demographic category representing 71 million Americans and 20% of the U.S. population. Let me begin by identifying the death force, a fate chosen by an alarming number of Boomers getting older.
Life Tests Will.
According to Sigmund Freud, the eminent early-twentieth century psychoanalyst, humans have two essential instincts: a fundamental force for self-preservation, called Eros, and a death drive, called Thanatos.
Freud’s postulated death drive compels humans to engage in risky and self-destructive acts that could lead to death. When Freud proposed these forces, he thought of Thanatos as outwardly risky activities and thrill seeking. He did not include in this conception of human nature’s duality some of the deadly sins known as gluttony and sloth.
Rather than entice death with irresponsible behaviors such as speeding in automobiles, many more Boomers risk slower deaths due to overeating, cigarette smoking, sedentary lifestyles, and abuse of drugs — from alcohol to prescription medications. Recent health statistics are sobering.
Carrying too many pounds is perhaps the most threatening health condition confronting all U.S. citizens, including Boomers. Sixty-five percent of U.S. adults age 20 and older are either overweight or obese, and roughly 30 percent of adults are obese.
According to a report issued by the Department of Health and Human Services, the number of obese Americans 55 to 64 jumped from 31% in 1988-1994 to 39% in 1999-2002. Over-abundant body fat has been correlated with elevated incidence of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, breathing problems such as asthma, osteoarthritis, cancer, and gall bladder disease.
The frequency of tobacco use among Boomers is just as disquieting. According to an abstract posted on MarketResearch.com, Boomers are still abusing cigarettes and other forms of tobacco in disturbing numbers. “In 2002, 38% of younger Boomers and 31% of older Boomers were current users of some form of tobacco.”
In a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released in 2005, nearly half of Americans aged 55 to 64 had high blood pressure, a major risk factor for stroke and heart disease. The report further reveals that 40 percent of people in the same age bracket are obese.
Finally, according to a study by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the use of illicit drugs among Boomers 50 to 59 rose 63% from 2002 to 2005. The agency projects that the number of adults aged 50 and older needing treatment for a substance abuse problem will grow to 4.4 million in 2020, compared to 1.7 million in 2000 and 2001.
The collective spirit of this generation is also under continuous assault from news media, which in recent years have connected the dots between the generation and aging stereotypes. In his satirical novel Boomsday, author Christopher Buckley proposes a future where elderly Boomers are offered tax incentives to commit suicide after turning 65. Martin Kuz, a journalist with SF Weekly, wrote a 4,500 word cover story that echoed Buckley with a reflective headline, Boomtastrophe. As Kuz lamented, “Alas, at the moment, the proposal (for federally subsidized suicides) remains rooted in fiction.” Demeaning op-ed columns and stories have appeared during the last few years in a wide cross-section of newspapers, magazines and certainly in cyberspace at anti-generational websites such as Boomer Deathwatch.
Constant cultural assaults on a generation can have dispiriting implications, with individual members feeling marginalized and less relevant over time. As was demonstrated during the Great Depression when so much of the nation’s fortitude deteriorated with economic malaise, collective angst can overwhelm an individual as the political becomes personal, leading to psychological depression, lower self-esteem and self-destructive behaviors.
Aging in a youth-focused society can overwhelm mere mortals as they confront ageism, obesity, heart disease, arteriosclerosis, diabetes and osteoporosis. Some eat too much, don’t get enough exercise, continue using tobacco, abuse prescription medications, and persist with illicit drug use. Some buy into negative cultural stereotypes and retreat to dark humor in their losses and diseases of aging.
Boomers falling prey to decades of poor healthcare habits begin to lose their lease on life. This can be augmented by the cumulative impact of negative stereotypes, both of a generation and the aging process. The mental framework that follows includes resignation, further abuse and a gradual push away from Eros and determination to live fully.
Some begin the process of dying decades before death.
Next time Brent Green will introduce a man who dramatically changed Brent’s life and pointed to the possibilities of how the Boomer generation can thrive in its aging.