(Bloomberg) — Baby boomers have more chronic illness and disability than their parents even as modern medicine allows them to live longer, researchers found.

Baby boomers, the 78 million Americans born from 1946 through 1964, engage in less physical activity, are more overweight and have higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol, according to a study released Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Monday’s study, among the first to compare the generations, shows that baby boomers aren’t as healthy and active as most would believe, says Dana E. King, the lead author. They become sicker earlier in life than the previous generation, are more limited in what they can do at work and are more likely to need the use of a cane or walker, the research found.

“The results of this study say you become sicker sooner and you are burdened with chronic disease and are taking medications yet you live longer,” says King, a professor of family medicine at West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown. “We are not as healthy as we think. There needs to be a new emphasis and continued attention to programs to improve healthy lifestyles in this age group.”

Researchers in the study analyzed data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2007 to 2010, looking at baby boomers, and from 1988 to 1994, evaluating the previous generation. They focused on people ages 46 to 64 years during the survey periods. The researchers compared the two groups’ lifestyle, health status, presence of chronic disease and disability.

Almost 40% of the boomers are obese, compared with 29% a generation ago. Fifty-two percent said they got no regular physical activity versus 17% of their parents, according to the study.

The results are a “wake-up call,” says Susan Reinhard, senior vice president of AARP’s Public Policy Institute in Washington.

“We have to cherish the longevity we’ve been given as a gift,” she says. “We have to fight to live well not just live long. We’d like to believe that 60 is the new 40, but you can’t be that 40-something if you are just sitting on the couch.”

The mortality rate of those age 59 in 2005, the leading edge of the baby boom, was 14% lower than 59-year-olds in 1997, according to a previous study cited by the authors.

While fewer baby boomers were smoking or had emphysema than their parents’ generation, more had high blood pressure and high cholesterol and were taking medicines to treat those conditions, according to this week’s study. Reinhard says the cholesterol finding may be skewed because doctors didn’t routinely test for cholesterol 20 years ago.

King says more studies are needed to find how to improve the health of the boomers. Previous generations grew up in a time with fewer electronics and labor-saving devices, and walked or rode bikes more regularly.

“Do we need more availability of fitness classes at work, do we need more bicycle lanes in more cities,” he says. “What is the most effective way? We don’t have the answer to that question to both motivate and make an impact on the healthy lifestyle profile of this generation.”

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