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Boomer doom: Falling victim to the culture of youth


January 29, 2007

As America's baby boomers approach senior status, a troubling number are dying from causes that have marked the generation since the 1960s - drug abuse, suicide and accidents.

A new analysis by Scripps Howard News Service of death records for more than 304,000 boomers who died in 2003 shows the legacies of early and lingering drug use, a tendency toward depression at all stages of life and a stubborn determination not to "act their age."

Notable baby boomer deaths

Here's a look at some notable baby boomers who have knocked early on heaven's door over the past 30 years. While most boomers now die from cancer and heart ailments, a substantial minority still die from drugs, suicide and accidents.

Freddie Prinze, comedian and actor, born 1954, died 1977, suicide.

Thurman Munson, New York Yankees catcher, born 1947, died 1979, small-plane crash.

Dorothy Stratten, model and actress, born 1960, died 1980, homicide.

John Belushi, actor and comedian, born 1949, died 1982, drug overdose.

Karen Carpenter, singer, The Carpenters, born 1950, died 1983, heart failure related to anorexia nervosa.

Len Bias, basketball player, born 1963, died 1986, complications from cocaine overdose.

Laura Nyro, songwriter, born 1947, died 1992, ovarian cancer.

John Candy, comedian and actor, born 1950, died 1993, heart attack.

Ray Sharkey, actor, born 1952, died 1993, AIDS.

Vitas Gerulaitis, tennis player, born 1954, died 1994, accidental carbon monoxide poisoning.

Eric Wright (Easy-E), rap star, born 1964, died 1995, AIDS.

Margaux Hemingway, actress, born 1954, died 1996, suicide.

Chris Farley, actor and comedian, born 1964, died 1997, complications of drug overdose.

Gianni Versace, fashion designer, born 1946, died 1997, homicide.

Florence Griffith-Joyner, Olympic track gold medalist, born 1959, died 1998, seizure attributed to congenital brain defect.

Payne Stewart, professional golfer, born 1957, died 1999, plane crash due to cabin-pressure failure.

John F. Kennedy Jr., businessman, son of slain president, born 1960, died 1999, small-plane crash.

Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR driver, born 1951, died 2001, injuries from accident during the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Robert Urich, actor, born 1946, died 2002, cancer.

Maurice Gibb, Bee Gees, born 1949, died 2003, complications from intestinal blockage.

Warren Zevon, musician and songwriter, born 1947, died 2003, mesothelioma (lung cancer normally caused by exposure to asbestos).

Nell Carter, actress and singer, born 1948, died 2003, heart disease, diabetes.

John Ritter, actor, born 1948, died 2003, aortic aneurysm from undetected congenital defect.

Johnny Ramone, musician, The Ramones, born 1948, died 2004, prostate cancer.

Reggie White, professional football player, evangelist, born 1961, died 2004, irregular heartbeat.

Christopher Reeve, actor, born 1952, died 2004, heart attack from reaction to antibiotics to treat infection related to his immobility after an earlier equestrian accident.

Vince Welnick, keyboardist, Grateful Dead, born 1951, died 2006, apparent suicide.

Robert "Bobby" Fetzer, California winemaker, born 1956, died 2006, in a river rafting accident.

Kirby Puckett, Baseball Hall of Fame center fielder, born 1960, died 2006, hemorrhagic stroke.

Susan Butcher, sled-dog racer, first woman to win Iditarod, born 1954, died 2006, leukemia.

Michael Fajans, artist, born 1949, died 2006, motorcycle accident.

Jim Pomeroy, professional motocross racer, born 1952, died 2006, auto accident.

Todd Skinner, free climber, born 1952, died 2006, rappelling fall at Yosemite National Park.

David Hermance, automotive engineer who designed hybrid vehicles for Toyota, born 1947, died 2006, aerobatic plane crash.

Malachi Ritscher, musician and war protester, born 1954, died 2006, suicide by self-immolation along an expressway in downtown Chicago.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

All of those problems contribute to more deaths from drugs, suicides and accidents than seen in previous aging generations.

Most of the nearly 78 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 are still alive and will be for many years. By one Census Bureau projection, in 2050 as many as 780,000 members of the generation that said "never trust anyone over 30" will be at least 100 years old.

But no one, not even members of a generation with a lifelong bent for defying convention, can beat death. Boomers are now dying at a rate of roughly 1,000 a day. The Census Bureau estimates that nearly 21 million will die in the next 25 years.

In the mid-1990s, with the first boomer occupying the White House, the chronic diseases of aging - cancer, heart disease and the new scourge of human immunodeficiency virus - edged out violent death as leading contributors to the demise of boomers as the first wave emerged into their 40s.

Yet the Scripps analysis found that some causes of death once thought to be restricted to the young persist among boomers into a more advanced age.

Scripps used a database of death-certificate records maintained by the National Center of Health Statistics to analyze the causes and nature of death for boomers who died in 2003, the most recent year for which complete records were available.

The causes of death for earlier and later generations were also studied.

The Scripps analysis found that 24 percent of the boomers who died in 2003 did not die of natural causes, and more than one in 10 died from some type of accident.

"The boomers are carrying forward into old age some risky behaviors that they've been living with and dying from since they were young adults," said Dr. Dan Blazer, a Duke University professor of psychiatry and behavioral science specializing in geriatrics.

"It's a bit of a myth that boomers have all figured out how to live a quality and great life. Many of them have problems that earlier generations just didn't bring to old age."

Boomer men accounted for two-thirds of the accidental deaths, 64 percent of drug-related deaths and three-quarters of suicides among their generation.

According to the Scripps study, boomers accounted for about half of all people nationwide who died of drug-related causes in 2003. That is far out of proportion to their 26 percent share of the population. Of the total 28,758 drug deaths that year, 13,901 were boomers. Those numbers do not include impaired driving or other accidental causes indirectly related to drug use.

"Oh, my goodness," the Mutual of Omaha insurance company medical director, Dr. Bruce Henricks, said when informed of the Scripps drug-deaths data. He is one of a handful of national experts on substance abuse and boomer mortality.

The study found that, by far, most of those dying are white males in their mid- to late 40s. Nearly 70 percent suffered accidental overdoses. California, where 10 percent of all boomers live, accounted for 15 percent of the drug deaths, followed by Florida and Texas.

Henricks said the fact that boomers account for one out of every two drug fatalities - and that such a dramatic rate has until now gone largely unnoticed - provides even more evidence that the problem of substance abuse by aging Americans is occurring largely under the nation's radar screen. Because drug-related deaths typically are underreported, Henricks said the true number could be even larger.

One certainty, he and several other researchers say, is that the boomer drug toll will continue to climb in coming years.

According to studies, 1.7 million Americans older than 50 were addicted to drugs in 1999. By 2020, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates, that number will soar to 4.4 million.

Add in those not addicted but misusing painkillers and anti-anxiety medicine, plus those mixing alcohol and pills, and what results is an "invisible epidemic." As more boomers enter their "coronary years," even more are forecast to be drug users and to die as a result, Henricks said.

"It's a growing area of concern because it is going mostly undetected," he said.

The upward trend is also being felt by substance-abuse rehabilitation facilities, such as Odyssey House, a New York City nonprofit enterprise that was founded in the early days of the drug culture. Forty years later, it has become one of the few treatment centers nationwide that specialize in older substance abusers.

Peter Provet, a psychologist and president of Odyssey House, says the waiting list to get into its senior-citizen facility is growing by the week. But even as evidence mounts of a looming wave of boomer substance abusers, the nation's predominant focus remains on battling drug abuse by the young.

The same is true for suicides.

The 11,667 boomer deaths classified as suicides in 2003 represented more than a third of the national total, and experts in the field note that the suicide rates have been above the national average at all stages of life since boomers were in their teens.

Although the focus has been on youth suicides, "from a public health perspective, suicide is a greater problem for older Americans, who have consistently higher rates, and aging baby boomers could double those late-life rates in the next 25 years," said Jerry Reed, executive director of the Suicide Prevention Action Network, a Washington advocacy group.

Blazer said many boomers have risk factors that typically make people more likely to attempt suicide.

"Since adolescence, they've been drinking and using more drugs than previous generations. They're less likely to have strong religious beliefs, more isolated, twice the divorce rate of the generation before them, and still facing money and work issues they thought would be behind them in their 60s. This is not going to be an easy period for boomers as they age."

The "forever young" attitude catches up with some as they continue to ride motorcycles and personal watercraft, hang-glide and climb mountains. Accidents of all types claimed more than 31,500 boomers in 2003, more than two-thirds of them men.

When the injuries don't kill them, orthopedic surgeons chalk activity-related accidents among boomers up to "boomeritis" - thought to account for well over 1 million trips to the emergency room each year.

Motorcycles are just one example. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says deaths among motorcycle riders over age 40 have more than tripled in a decade, from 541 in 1994 to 1,847 in 2004, often from boomers climbing on high-powered machines either for the first time in decades, or even the first time ever.

Conventional wisdom suggests that boomers will age out of their riskier behaviors to some extent, but experts note that boomers still cling to their cars.

"Our roads, our cars, our buildings, everything is pretty much designed for twenty-somethings, and while many of the boomers coming into their 60s are doing everything they can to stay healthy and not feel old, they need to recognize there are still changes in vision, in reaction time that put them at more risk when they do certain things," said Nadine Marks, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Although the 11,274 boomer deaths from motor-vehicle accidents of all types in 2003 was roughly in proportion to the group's share of the population, recent research suggests that older drivers who are injured in auto accidents are more likely to die from those injuries than are younger drivers.

"So much of our aging research has focused on models of success, of people staying active and healthy," Marks said. "The data on boomer deaths reminds us that not everyone has the same advantages and outlook as they age, and maybe we need to be doing more to support those who fall between the cracks."



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