In her professional life, Sacramento public relations executive Kassy Perry has long represented health organizations trying to combat California’s obesity problem. In her personal life, she has struggled with weight loss, trying with little success to drop the 30 pounds she gained after age 50. Today, at 52, she’s active and athletic. But the weight won’t melt away.
She feels embarrassed that she hasn’t lost the weight, she said, and she’s frustrated with the often simplistic approach weight-loss advocates take.
“It’s easy to say people need more education,” Perry said, “like they don’t know not to have a box of doughnuts and a gallon of juice first thing in the morning.
“We know better. It’s not just that people are ignorant.”
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In Sacramento and across the nation, the number of baby boomers who are overweight or obese continues to climb, and as a group, they have hit middle age much heavier than the previous generation. Almost three of four people ages 49 to 67 – the baby boom generation – are overweight or obese in the four-county Sacramento region, according to a new survey from the UCLA Center of Health Policy Research.
Well-publicized concerns over childhood obesity have led to a gradual leveling out of those numbers across the country; boomers are now the most likely group to be obese in California. They are approaching their senior years with large numbers already dealing with disability and chronic poor health related to excess weight. They face potentially shortened life spans – and an overburdened health care system faces additional spikes in cost.
“We’re in an epidemic,” said Rich Hamburg, deputy director of the Trust for America’s Health, a national nonprofit health advocacy group. “We’ve seen this 30-year rise in overweight and obesity rates, and we’ve seen a more significant increase in the baby boom population.”
While there are other measures of obesity, including abdominal fat and waist circumference, researchers generally define it according to body mass index, or BMI. The BMI formula divides an individual’s weight by the square of height, then multiplies the result by 703. The math is not without controversy: Some health experts charge that for people with large muscle mass, the calculations may unfairly skew them into overweight or obese categories.
According to BMI calculations, obesity is defined as having a body mass index above 30. For a 6-foot-tall man, that’s the equivalent of weighing more than 225 pounds.
About 72 percent of Sacramento-area baby boomers were overweight or obese in 2012, compared to 61 percent among the same age group in 2003, the UCLA data show. During that same period, the percentage of younger adults, ages 18 to 47, in the region who were overweight or obese rose just 2 percent, to just more than half the people in that age group.
The data showed that Sacramento boomers are more likely to be overweight than Californians living in every other part of the state except the San Joaquin Valley, where nearly four of every five boomers were overweight.
The local numbers parallel a dangerous national health trend: Obesity is growing particularly fast among the nation’s baby boomers, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with roughly 30 percent of boomers falling into the obese category in 2012 compared with 24 percent a decade ago. CDC figures show that another 41 percent of boomers are overweight.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which focuses on the nation’s public health, recently published research showing that in two states – Arkansas and Louisiana – more than 40 percent of boomers are obese. So are 30 percent of boomers in another 41 states, as well as almost 24 percent of Californians in that age category.
“For the baby boomers, nothing will magically happen to change that,” Hamburg said. “Societal change will take time. It’s a matter of education and realizing the danger of going into retirement age with a less healthy life and more chronic disease. For the time being, the boomers are aging into obesity-related illnesses, which will translate into a cost crisis for health care and Medicare.”
Health outcomes troubling
UCLA’s California Health Interview Survey, the largest state health survey in the country, is a poll of roughly 50,000 Californians conducted every two years. The research covers topics including medical diagnoses, emotional well-being, insurance coverage and access to care. Its new obesity findings highlight a host of troubling health outcomes for baby boomers.
In Sacramento, 56 percent of obese baby boomers have high blood pressure, the UCLA figures show, compared with 23 percent of boomers with a normal body weight. More than one-fifth of obese baby boomers in the region have diabetes. Forty percent suffer from arthritis: Not surprisingly, the number of boomers using assistive devices, such as canes and walkers, is on the rise, as well. Almost 20 percent of obese boomers can’t work due to disability.
Because of their weight, they’re at greater risk of stroke and heart disease, as well as asthma.
The three-decade, nationwide rise in obesity has resulted in $150 billion a year in obesity-related health care costs, according to the CDC, and researchers say that figure is projected to more than double to $344 billion before the end of the decade.
“The numbers are disturbing,” said UC Davis School of Nursing assistant professor Debra Bakerjian. “We know that older adults over 75 are the highest consumers of health care dollars. Really focusing on the baby boom generation now to help them become more healthy is very important.”
So why are Americans carrying around so many extra pounds? The basic weight-loss equation – eat less; move more – isn’t complicated, after all. Why haven’t boomers, who have encouraged their own kids and grandkids to exercise and eat right, embraced those concepts in their own lives?
In part, it’s because big has become the new normal: big portions, big containers of sugary sodas, big clothing sizes, big people who have established the habit of eating way too much. Just as the culture gradually shifted away from tobacco consumption starting in the 1960s, experts say, it now needs to shift beyond the consumption of too much food.
But research shows that other factors can correlate with excessive weight gain, too. Obese boomers are about half as likely to have a college degree as boomers who are at a healthy weight, according to the UCLA data. They are more likely to be low-income and less likely to own their own homes. And they’re 35 percent more likely to smoke.
Adding to the problem is the fact that baby boomers weren’t raised with deprivation. To the contrary, an abundance of food – frozen food, canned food, soft drinks and snack food – filled many boomers’ childhood kitchens. The generation embraced fast food culture in their teens and 20s. The question for many of them now, in their 50s and 60s, is why they’re still eating like kids.
A generation long criticized for acting like they’ll never grow old has begun coping with the unfortunate reality that the older they get, the fewer calories they need.
“The amount of food you ate at 30 or 40 is not what you should consume at 50 or 60,” Bakerjian said.
Sacramento trainer Lorri Ann Code – founder of Mama Boot Camp, which has helped hundreds of local women lose weight – thinks that people get trapped in a cycle of eating too many empty calories, then feeling too sluggish to exercise.
“I think people get super-comfortable with being uncomfortable,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s scary to make changes. They don’t feel good in the first place. Stepping out of their comfort zone without help can be hard.”
A stressed generation
In one respect, as Sacramento resident Barb Andres knows, worrying about weight just adds to the list of stresses that boomers cope with in their 50s.
She likes to tell people she has an Oprah body. Her cholesterol and blood pressure are normal, she said, and her health is good – but she admits her weight is higher than it should be. A lot higher.
“Technically, I’m obese,” said Andres, 58, a bookkeeper who wears a size 16. “The weight charts say I should weigh 140. The charts are crazy.
“I think I broke 140 in junior high. I’ve never been skinny.”
She thinks baby boomers in particular eat because of stresses their own parents didn’t face in midlife.
“There’s an expectation for baby boomers to live a different life than our parents did in their 50s and 60s,” she said. “They were winding down at this age. We’re doing more. And we’re dealing with different financial issues, and a lot of people are dealing with their kids.
“It’s a different world now. People are worrying about their parents and their kids at the same time. I didn’t see my parents trapped in that sandwich when they were my age.”
Baby boomers form the solid core of Dr. John Hernried’s practice as medical director of Sutter Weight Management Institute: His typical patient needs to lose more than 60 pounds, he said. But many of his boomer patients have been resigned to being heavy – and many more, even as they deal with diabetes and the prospect of knee-replacement surgery, are in denial as to what carrying extra pounds will do to their health.
And many times, their primary care physicians have been reluctant to bring up the patients’ weight problems: Studies show that half of obese people say their doctors have never told them to lose weight.
“We want to address the problem head-on,” he said. “Obesity creates incredible public health problems. We want to make BMI another vital sign, like blood pressure. Even if you’re just coming in because you have a cold, your BMI will be measured and tracked.
“Talking about weight can be a very sensitive issue. This is an easy way for physicians to address it.”
Calories count, and portions matter – but on top of that, researchers are only beginning to study the complex role that hormonal changes and metabolic shifts play in midlife weight gain, he said.
“It’s not a simple issue,” he said. “That’s the reality.”
Even with her background in public health advocacy, Kassy Perry is still searching for answers. And she’s still trying to lose weight.
“You hit 50, and your hormones shift,” she said. “It’s much more difficult to lose weight. It will be a battle.
“For me, it’s a matter of keeping my other numbers down, because I have a family history of heart disease. I need to get the weight off.”