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The Kids Are Not OK

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The baby boomers are famous for using everything from botulism toxin to spa food to cling to youth.

Boomers’ focus on external appearances might annoy many, but disability insurers might be better off if the boomers had done a better job of passing a little of that vanity on to their children, according to at least one group benefits expert.

Carol Harnett, the national disability and life practices leader for the group benefits division at Hartford Life Inc., a unit of Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., Hartford, gave that assessment during a discussion that was going to be about the effects of the aging of the baby boomers.

Harnett, Hartford’s chief disability insurance trend watcher, says the aging of the boomers may have less of an effect than disability insurance underwriters have feared, because the boomers are healthier than actuaries had expected.

Boomers are members of the “first generation that was so youth oriented.”

They’ve made time for cosmetic surgery, teeth whitening treatments – and exercise.

Unfortunately, “the GenXers and GenY’s are not as fascinated by physical fitness,” Harnett says.

In a perfect world, sellers of disability insurance would be persuading boomer clients to get their children and young employees off the couch and away from junk food.

But, in the real world, in most cases, “the best I can hope for is that you will be episodically good,” Harnett says.

Because improving health is easier said than done, disability insurance producers have an obligation to emphasize the importance of disability insurance protection, Harnett adds.

Harnett notes that the disability insurance producers she meets understand the importance of the topic because many of them know members of Generation X who have health problems or have obese “Millennial” generation children of their own.

“People are amazingly interested in the topic,” Harnett says. “It does impact people individually.”

Hartford breaks out disability incidence figures for insureds under age 45. Most working members of the group are members of Generation X – the generation born from 1965 to, roughly, 1984.

Already, Hartford finds that cancer, strokes, back problems and joint pain all appear to be hitting members of Generation X at earlier ages than they hit boomers, Harnett says.

“It’s a small uptick,” she says, “but it’s an uptick,”

Harnett also is alarmed about obesity and diabetes statistics for members of the “Millennial generation,” or members of the generation born after 1985.

Childhood obesity rates seem to be soaring, and so is the percentage of children who suffer from Type 2 “adult onset” diabetes, Harnett says.

Years ago, Type 2 diabetes was rare among children.

Now, childhood Type 2 diabetes is so common that “we’ve seen the average age of onset of Type 2 diabetes go down 10 years,” Harnett says.

Factors that can affect the reported diabetes incidence rate include changes in definitions, detection techniques and levels of physician interest in various conditions.

The government is just starting to prepare to collect the national data researchers need to analyze trends in the prevalence of diabetes among young people.

Members of some rapidly growing ethnic groups, such as Hispanics, tend to suffer from relatively high rates of diabetes.

Nevertheless, when it comes to increasing rates of obesity and obesity-related conditions, such as diabetes, “we’re seeing these trends across all socioeconomic strata,” Harnett says.

Harnett says she believes the environment is one major factor that has changed the most since the first boomers were born.

Americans’ diet probably changed for the worse in the 1970s, when women poured into the workforce and families started to eat about 40% more meals out, Harnett says.

“That trend looks as if it has plateaued,” Harnett says.

But people eat more when they go to restaurants than they do at home, and that alone could be helping to make young Americans’ fatter, Harnett says.

Harnett also thinks GenXers and Millennials may be suffering from their efforts to deemphasize interest in people’s appearance.

In the group health market, insurers have tried to control the kinds of conditions that lead to big health and disability claims by setting up elaborate disease management programs.

Broadly based wellness programs that encourage employees to eat better, lose weight and stop smoking may be effective, because they reach individuals who still have time to improve their health, Harnett says.

Waiting to help consumers once they already suffer from serious health problems is like “chasing the horse once it’s out of the barn,” Harnett says.