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Baby Boomers: the Thinnest Generation?

What birth cohorts can teach us

By Arti Virkud

Published March 5, 2013

In public health, it is generally assumed that Americans are becoming progressively more obese with each passing generation.

Usually, epidemiologists break down the prevalence of disease by an individual’s biological age or by calendar year.

But a recent study suggests that what generation one was born in may be more important. Dr. Whitney Robinson of University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health along with her colleagues compared obesity predictors based on what year someone was born using data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) — one of the largest epidemiological surveys — were collected between 1988 and 2008. The study assessed whether some age groups have higher abdominal obesity, also known as high waist circumference, than others. The study assumption has been that abdominal obesity was that it has continuously increased over the 1990s and 2000s. Abdominal obesity is strongly associated with diseases like type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The study found that those born in the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946-1964) which is roughly at lower risk for abdominal obesity compared to the Silent Generation before them and the Generation X generation after them.

A possible reason for this is that 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.

The study bolsters the case for conducting epidemiological studies that compare health based on the generation people were born into. It could also lead to greater efforts to understand why it is that Baby Boomers are less likely to be obese.

Edited by Elaine Meyer. Additional research by Lauren Weisenfluh.

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The views and opinions expressed on this website are solely those of the authors and do not represent those of the Department of Epidemiology, the Mailman School of Public Health, or Columbia University.