It has been an article of faith among actuaries that each generation of Americans will live healthier, longer lives than the previous one. After all, the average life expectancy of Americans has lengthened without letup since 1900. But recent medical studies suggest that the rate of obesity, chronic illness and disability among boomers may be higher than for older generations. The result is that the cost of providing health care and caregiving services could far outstrip current expectations.

A late-2009 study published in the American Journal of Public Health examined data comparing the health of different groups in 1988-1994 and 1999-2004. The data showed improvements among people now 80 and older. It also indicated that there was no change in disability rates among people now in their 70s. But disability rates were actually 40 percent to 70 percent higher among people now in their 60s.

Super-size me
The driving force appears to be our own forks and spoons. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity compared the body-mass index of different generations and calculated when they reached a benchmark of 20 percent obesity. What used to happen to Silent Generation members in their 40s is now hitting Gen Xers in their 20s.

Medical researchers say current life expectancy predictions were based on data from 1988-1994, long before the current obesity epidemic accelerated. Since 1994, for example, we have gone from a nation with only one state with more than 20 percent of its adult population considered “obese,” to one with only one state with less than 20 percent of its adult population considered “obese” (and three with over one in three adults “obese”). Obesity contributes to chronic disease such as diabetes and heart disease, and higher rates of disabilities.

If current projections of life expectancy and health care utilization are based on out-of-date numbers, life expectancies in future decades could be shorter than projected (a positive development for Social Security, actuarially speaking). But health care utilization could be much higher (a fiscal disaster for Medicare and Medicaid). Obesity trends could render obsolete actuarial assumptions upon which many private annuity and insurance products are based.

According to a recent Urban Institute study, Boomers on Medicare can expect their out-of-pocket health care costs to increase from $2,600 in 2010 to $6,200 (inflation-adjusted) in 2040. That’s bad. But costs could well be higher. Urge your Boomer clients to drop the pounds.