Baby boomers are supposed to be different, the first generation to redefine retirement and aging on their own terms; robust, active and energetic.

Could that all be just self-congratulatory hype?

Researchers at UCLA have concluded that Baby Boomers may well be entering their 60s suffering far more disabilities than their counterparts did in previous generations.

In the study, which will be published in the January 2010 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, researchers from the division of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA found that the cohort of individuals between the ages of 60 and 69 exhibited increases in several types of disabilities over time. By contrast, those between the ages of 70 and 79 and those aged 80 and over saw no significant increases - and in some cases exhibited fewer disabilities than their previous groups.

While the study focused on groups born prior to the post-World War II Baby Boom, the findings hold "significant and sobering implications" for health care because they suggest that people now entering their 60s could have even more disabilities, putting an added burden on an already fragile system and boosting health costs for society as a whole, the researchers say.

New Pressures On Health Care System

If this is true, it's something we need to address," said Teresa Seeman, UCLA professor of medicine and epidemiology and the study's principal investigator. "If this trend continues unchecked, it will put increasing pressure on our society to take care of these disabled individuals. This would just put more of a burden on the health care system to address the higher levels of these problems."

The researchers used two sets of data -- the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) for 1988-94 and 1999-2004 - to examine how disabilities for the three groups of adults aged 60-69, 70-79, and 80 and older had changed over time.

They assessed disability trends in four areas: basic activities associated with daily living, such as walking from room to room and getting into and out of bed; instrumental activities, such as performing household chores or preparing meals; mobility, including walking one-quarter mile or climbing 10 steps without stopping for rest; and functional limitations, which include stooping, crouching or kneeling.

The study focused primarily on trends for the more recent 60-69 age group -- those born between 1930 and 1944, just before the start of the Baby Boom, whose data was included in the 1999-2004 NHANES. In particular, researchers felt this group could offer insights into the health of the Boomers following them, who are now entering their 60s.

Older generation has fewer disabilities

The researchers found that between the periods 1988-94 and 1999-2004, disability among those in their 60s increased between 40 and 70 percent in each area studied except functional limitations, independent of sociodemographic characteristics, health status and behaviors, and relative weight. The increases were considerably higher among non-white and overweight subgroups.

By contrast, the researchers found no significant changes among the group aged 70 to 79, while the 80-plus group actually saw a drop in functional limitations.

One reason for this uptick, researchers say, is that disabilities may be linked with the changing demographic make up of the U.S. population. The fastest growing segments of the population, they say, are over-represented when it comes to obesity, for example.

The researchers note that their controls for differences in socio-demographics, health status and health behavior do not completely explain the increase in disability trends among the 60- to 69-year olds. Still, the trends within that group "are disturbing," Seeman said.

"Increases in disability in that group are concerning because it's a big group," she said. "These may be people who have longer histories of being overweight, and we may be seeing the consequences of that. We're not sure why these disabilities are going up. But if this trend continues, it could have a major impact on us, due to the resources that will have to be devoted to those people."