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posted: 12/3/2012 5:00 AM

Aging boomers won't admit they're getting old

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  • At least one aging expert says many baby boomers are not prepared for old age.

    At least one aging expert says many baby boomers are not prepared for old age.

By Bill Ward
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Fred Hundt grew up in 1960s San Francisco, played in a loud band and tried a little bit of everything on the drug front. "I'm kind of a poster child of the '60s," he said.

Now he's a poster adult for baby boomers, whose embrace of a "sex, drugs and rock'n'roll" lifestyle is coming home to roost as they enter what are supposed to be their golden years.

"I certainly have hearing loss," admits Hundt, a recovering alcoholic. "And I have friends who have died because of drugs and others who have struggled with hepatitis C and had liver transplants."

Hearing problems and the threat of hepatitis C and attendant liver complications are perhaps the largest looming problems for the 76 million baby boomers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged that all boomers get tested for hepatitis C.

But there is some good news for a generation long regarded as hedonistic: Boomers smoke and drink less than their predecessors, and most sexually transmitted diseases they might have incurred in the "free love" era are treatable.

Actually, the biggest hazard for this fiercely youth-obsessed generation might be psychological, said Dr. Robert Kane, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Aging.

"What really scares the hell out of me is that they're totally unprepared for old age," he said. In Kane's view, this boomer behavior is a flashback, if you will, to their youth. "I would describe them as people who live for the moment. They are in a huge state of denial and haven't adopted the mechanisms to cope."

The rate of hearing problems for 65-year-olds has remained steady for decades at 11 percent, Kane said. But a recent Better Hearing Institute study found that about 15 percent of Americans ages 46 to 64 already have hearing problems. On top of that, Kane said, "A large number of people are just not aware that they have hearing loss."

And they needn't have played in a loud band to have been afflicted in an era in which concerts featured huge stacks of loudspeakers blasting away at the audience.

But even those who eschewed such concerts are susceptible to hearing loss, often in the form of tinnitus or ringing sensations in a quiet room.

"Exposure to loud noise at any time during life can damage the ear," said Dr. Philip Hagen, medical director of the Mayo Clinic's EmbodyHealth.

While Kane and Hagen encouraged all boomers to get hearing tests, the CDC issued an even stronger recommendation in August: "A one-time blood test for hepatitis C should be on every baby boomer's medical checklist," director Thomas Frieden said.

The CDC estimates that 3.5 million Americans have the virus and that blanket boomer testing could uncover 800,000 victims and prevent 120,000 deaths. The disease, a viral infection of the liver, can stay dormant for decades.

"Most people with hepatitis C don't know they've got it," Hagen said. "The big issue for boomers was they may have been infected in an era when we weren't able to test for hepatitis C.

"If you have ever (used) intravenous drugs, you should get it checked at once. If you have engaged in high-risk sexual activity, multiple partners or men having sex with men, you should get checked."

Other vices haven't proven as nettlesome, especially since boomers were less inclined to adopt them for life.

Take smoking, in whatever form. The data on marijuana's health effects are mixed, with some potential for respiratory problems, both doctors said. As for tobacco, "the boomers are sort of the model citizens, down around 20 percent (usage)," Hagen said. For those who smoked and then quit, "after about 10 years the risk of lung cancer and strokes is approaching the normal population's risk."

Alcohol and hard drugs took their collective tolls, but more on abusers than casual users. "The young, hard-core alcoholics and drug addicts generally don't make it to the ages of current boomers," Kane said.

Still, those who have made it this far might be in luck, especially since two of the major ailments (hearing loss and hepatitis C) have much more effective treatments than ever.

In a very real sense, a generation that adopted the Who's mantra "hope I die before I get old" simply doesn't think it has gotten old yet. As Kane put it, "there's going to be a wake-up call for a whole lot of people."

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