SALT LAKE CITY — Millennials are not only the biggest generation alive, they are also the most educated and most connected, but one factor could sink the prosperity those traits imply. They have serious, sometimes not-addressed health issues that could shorten their lives and hamper the economy.
It is not a worry for a distant time, according to a new report by Moody Analytics for Blue Cross Blue Shield. “The Economic Consequences of Millennial Health” says unaddressed illness among millennials over the next 10 years may spark a dramatic rise (40%) in their mortality, significant increases in their health care costs (33%) and might reduce their income as much as $4,500 per person each year.
“The first and most troubling finding of this study is the confirmation that millennials are undoubtedly less healthy than the previous generation as they come into their most formative years. The oldest millennials are now entering their late 30s, a time when overall health traditionally begins its lifelong decline in earnest,” the report says.
Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of millennials don’t get preventive care. Nearly one-third don’t have a primary care physician.
The report compares millennials ages 34-36 in 2017 to Generation X at the same age in 2014 using data from the insurance company. So the findings are based on those who have health insurance and can access care; results could be even worse for those who lack coverage.
Most millennials think they’re in good health, said Ken Thorpe of Emory University, who chairs the national Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, a not-for-profit coalition of groups representing businesses, health care providers and patients.
The data on chronic disease says they’re not.
“I think the concern has been that this particular generation might be one of the first where there’s an expected reduction in lifespan. The second part of the concern is it’s not just the health care cost associated with these conditions, but they also affect workplace productivity,” Thorpe said.
Lost productivity costs could be two to three times higher in terms of dollars than the cost of treating the medical conditions, he said.
And that hurts the economy.
Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, a group 73 million members strong. The report says they make up more than 35% of the U.S. labor force and that share is rising. Generation Xers, who millennials were compared to, were born between 1965 and 1980.
The report builds on earlier findings that millennials are more prone than Gen Xers to major depression, Type 2 diabetes, hyperactivity, high cholesterol and hypertension, among others. Just over half the growing health challenges are related to mental health.
“The youngest millennials won’t turn 40, around the time when most of these conditions historically begin to reach critical mass, for another 17 years. Thus, the projected increases in millennial healthcare costs over the next ten years may only be the tip of the iceberg, with more serious implications to come,” the report says.
Psychologist Matt Van Dusen is clinical director of Deseret View Recovery in Rancho Mirage, California. He also teaches graduate students at San Diego-based Alliant International University, so he both treats and teaches millennials.
The generational divide between Generation X and millennials is large. “It seems like the millennials are on the cusp of a whole new wave of behavior, interaction with society and cultural norms,” Van Dusen said.
Advances like microwave ovens that simplified cooking, and television and other tech that deliver entertainment and a steady stream of dopamine-releasing stimulation have resulted in an addictive but sedentary lifestyle that goes against human design, he said. It disrupts circadian rhythms, lowers exposure to sunshine’s vitamin D and alters how we eat.
Substance use disorder specialist Christina Zidow, chief operating officer at Odyssey House of Utah, isn’t surprised so many of the health challenges impacting millennials are related to mental health.
She says millennials have grown up immersed in technology that at its worst dehumanizes and isolates people. They’ve been exposed in unprecedented ways to the trauma of natural disasters. And terrorism and threats have formed a backdrop to even ordinary aspects of life.
“Millennials have grown up in a world where things can be and seem really, really unsafe — legitimately unsafe,” she said, “creating some historical trauma that broadens our description of adverse childhood events.”
Trauma exposure deteriorates mental heath, said Zidow. “What do we do on the prevention side so that we don’t continue to have this ballooning effect?”
Getting ahead of it
Thorpe said employers have options to improve the health of their workers. Many already offer education and support programs that target health. Even simple strategies make a difference. Losing small amounts of weight can reduce prevalence of diabetes and high blood pressure, for example.
Identifying programs that work and getting young adults and their families to engage in them is a good first step, he said.
The second step is doing something about a steady rise in deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses for care — a trend over the last decade.
“That’s no way to manage a population that has five and six chronic conditions,” said Thorpe, who noted that someone who has Type 2 diabetes, for instance, should be getting regular checkups for blood glucose, eye health and related issues or risk terrible and costly outcomes. But with costs rising, people are less likely to seek care early or fill prescriptions.
“It’s really not an effective way to control growth of health care spending and certainly not a good thing for the health of this population,” he said.
To reduce the impact of millennial health challenges and get better results, Zidow recommends eliminating silos that spring up around health care. She believes there’s “no wrong door to engage in services,” including training non-clinicians to provide support and information en masse and bolstering school-based services.
It’s also important to stop treating mental and physical conditions as if they weren’t related, Zidow said. Mental health and substance use disorders are medical disorders as surely as diabetes and high cholesterol are.