We baby boomers have been lucky. Born into post-World War II prosperity, we grew up with more access to nutrition, medical care and education than any other generation in history. We’ve had opportunities undreamed of by our ancestors, and through our sheer numbers – 78 million strong – we’ve dominated the political and cultural landscape.
So why are we so unhappy?
According to research that has tracked us as we’ve moved through middle age and beyond, we are more dissatisfied with our lives than older folks, more depressed, and we are killing ourselves in alarming numbers. A Centers for Disease Control study showed the suicide rate increased nearly 50 percent for men in their 50s and nearly 60 percent for women in their early 60s from 1999-2010.
What’s behind this disturbing trend? Major depression is present in two-thirds of suicide cases, according to the American Association of Suicidology,but other factors can also play a role in suicidal tendencies – things such as illness, impairment, disconnectedness and economic downturns.
In the baby boomers case, are societal conditions and the inevitable negatives of aging combining with our collective history to overwhelm us? Does the fact that we’ve had it good for much of our lives mean less ability to handle the bad? Here’s what I know of my generation:
We’re stressed. We’ve had freedom and opportunity, and we’ve seized it – doing more, becoming more, creating more and accumulating more. As we struggle to keep up with all that we’ve set in motion, the result can be chronic stress, amajor contributor to depression.And if that’s not enough, many of us are doing this juggling act as we simultaneously care for elderly parents and support college-age kids.
We are the original youth worshipers. We planned never to trust anyone over 30. So how do we reconcile that with the face in the mirror? Saying 60 is the new 40 sounds great, but if you live long enough, your body is going to wear out and no amount of Botox, hair plugs or surgery is going to change that. It’s a tough reality to accept for the first generation to value adolescence as its own unique era rather than as just a path to growing up.
We’re dealing with constant change. Just when we start walking into rooms and forgetting why, we’ve had to embrace a rapidly morphing technological world that waits for no one. We may try to console ourselves that all this new learning we’re being forced to do is giving our brains a great workout, but it can quickly become exhausting and overwhelming – not to mention humbling, as anyone who’s had to ask their grandchild to set up their phone can attest.
We are comfortable taking drugs. Our generation has never been shy about turning to chemical relief. Nearly half of us have experimented with illicit drugs. Now, with pressures increasing, it seems we are doing so again. Illicit drug use has more than doubled in those ages 50-54 and more than tripled in those 55-59, according to a 2012 survey. Drug use can prompt depression, studies show, and, conversely, depression can prompt substance abuse. Another disturbing fact: The ongoing prescription drug abuse epidemic has made opiates a popular choice in our age group for intentional overdose.
It’s the economy, stupid. Just as we were anticipating retirement, the economy imploded, and the prosperity we’d come to depend on in the 1990s evaporated, along with our 401Ks. Many of us found ourselves laid off and sending out resumes for the first time in decades. Even those lucky enough to land new positions more often than not are earning less and doing without benefits or full-time hours. A shaky economy is unnerving for everyone, but for those without the time to start over, it can be devastating.
We’re sicker than we thought we’d be. All those medical advances – the polio and measles vaccines, the DNA research, the cancer treatment victories – made it seem inevitable we’d be healthier than our parents were at this age. Instead, a 2013 study shows that baby boomers have more chronic disease and more disability than the previous generation. It seems we learned the “no smoking” message but aren’t doing so well with the exercise-and-eat-healthy side of the equation. In a word: obesity.
We’re not used to limits. The women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the pill, the space race – they all painted a picture of a world with infinite possibility. Aging brings home the truth that the upward progress we’ve come to expect, that sense of things always getting better, the ability to reinvent ourselves can’t be sustained forever.
Beating the Statistics
As I finished this list, I realized the real question probably should be why wouldn’t baby boomers be depressed? It’s a lot to handle, especially for a group brought up to believe, thanks to Walt Disney, in happy endings.
So what can baby boomers do to protect ourselves from becoming another grim statistic? The first is to recognize that depression, while common in the older population, is not an inevitable part of aging. It can and should be treated, and most can expect significant improvement. Along with antidepressant medication, a variety of interventions are available, such as psychotherapy, which has been shown to be just as effective in the old as in the young.
In addition, new techniques for treating depression are constantly being developed. One newcomer is transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses magnets to stimulate nerve cells in the region of the brain related to mood. If one treatment doesn’t work, another might. Keep trying.
Consistent exercise has also been shown to lessen the chance of depression at any age. It also makes us feel and look better, especially when combined with good nutrition. A healthier lifestyle also aids sleep – an important consideration since aging and menopause are known to damage sleep architecture, and lack of sleep can prompt depression.
It’s also important to recognize that turning to chemicals to relieve stress will most likely do just the opposite, especially now that our bodies can’t shake off the effects of drug or alcohol use as well as they did when we were young. Practices that promote peace of mind – yoga and meditation top the list – are more effective ways to deal with stress and anxiety.
Keeping up social connections and making new ones is also vital, especially at a time when we begin to lose friends and loved ones, when children move away (taking with them their social whirl), and when retirement or layoffs can take us away from the sense of community provided by the workplace. If you’re looking for a way to connect, consider volunteering. It’s well-worn advice but true; helping someone not only feels good, it matters, and we could all use a little more meaning in our lives.
Perhaps most important is paying attention to our attitude. We’ve learned to dread aging. Didn’t the Rolling Stones warn us “what a drag it is getting old”? But maturity can bring many pluses, including a better understanding of ourselves and what really makes us happy.