We always hear about the “inevitable” health decline that occurs as we get older. Seniors are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic illnesses, have mobility issues, and cognitive decline. As the baby boomer generation ages, there’s been more of a focus on this in healthcare due to the uptick in disease prevalence and healthcare costs. As a RD who works closely with people with chronic illnesses, I mostly see clients who are in their 50s and older, and rarely anyone younger than 40 (although it does happen).
However, it’s important to remember that many chronic illnesses develop over time, with habits we established in our younger years being a major trigger. Our eating and exercise habits, use of alcohol and tobacco, stress levels, sleep hygiene, care for mental health, and even the quality of our relationships can dictate what happens to our bodies later on. It’s easy to feel invincible in our younger years, when we feel OK and can’t fathom developing any sort of health condition. But the reality is that we have to focus on our health now before it’s too late.
Recently, Blue Cross Blue Shield came out with a study in which they analyzed date in 2017 from health insurance claims for 55 million millenials, who were ages 21 to 36 at the time. Based on the insurer’s optimal health index of 100, the study found that the average score for millenials was about 95. That’s pretty good! However, they found that overall health for millenials begins to decline around age 27. Yes, that’s right, 2-7. The top 10 conditions affecting millenials are as follows:
- Major depression.
- Substance use disorder
- Alcohol use disorder.
- Psychotic conditions.
- Chron’s disease/Ulcerative colitis.
- High cholesterol.
- Tobacco use disorder .
- Type II diabetes.
You might notice that out of these conditions, 6 of them are behavioral health conditions that affect mental health and emotional well-being. The prevalence of major depression, hyperactivity, and type II diabetes has grown more significantly than the other conditions since 2014.
As a 28 year old millenial, these findings hit close to home and the prevalence of these conditions among my peers is terrifying. If the prevalence is so high now, what will it be like as we get older? How does the prevalence of these health conditions affect our life expectancy as a generation? And most importantly: what can we do to improve mental health and emotional well-being among millenials?
Let me back up a second and note that I realize this study comes with MANY limitations. It’s not a randomized, double-blind, controlled trial (the gold standard in health/nutrition research). The study is purely observational, and from what I can see, researchers didn’t take confounding factors into account. Genetics, socioeconomic status, eating habits, race, physical activity levels, occupation, living situation, environment….none of these were taken into account and we know how much these impact our overall health. It’s incredibly difficult to design a study that takes all of these factors into consideration, so I understand this limitation (and it’s a major limitation in MOST nutrition research). Further, this study was only focused on millenials who have health insurance, which we know is not the case for everyone in our generation.
Another limitation of this study is that it didn’t tell us why millenials’ health starts to decline at such an early age, but it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out some of those key reasons:
- Eating too many highly processed, convenience foods.
- Living stressful lifestyles and not sleeping enough.
- Not maintaining work/life balance and prioritizing relationships.
- Excessive social media use, lack of face-to-face interaction.
- Lack of movement, living sedentary lifestyles.
- Drinking too much.
- Not keeping up with regular doctor’s appointments.
OK, so you’re a millenial, and now you know your health is at risk of declining in your mid to late twenties. What can you do about it? I came up with the tips listed below to help you stay on top of your physical and mental health as a millenial!
6 Ways Millenials Can Improve Their Health
- Change ONE thing about your eating habits. You don’t have to follow a vegan diet, take 18 supplements, or drink matcha green tea smoothies to upgrade your eating habits. Making even just the smallest change can have a HUGE difference. Add some veggies or fruit to your breakfast (heck, just start eating breakfast!). Swap your fast food runs for a meal at home, or at least just take a look at the nutrition information online before placing your order. Try snacking on healthier foods instead of processed snacks (think: fresh fruit with nut butter, veggies and hummus or guacamole, berries and almonds, and so on).
- Limit happy hours. There are many positive things that come from happy hour – it gives you a chance to socialize with your co-workers and/or friends, and time to unwind after a long day at work. The downside to that is that happy hours are typically filled with alcohol and excessive amounts of appetizers (fries, cheese curds, and nachos, anyone?). We all deserve a refreshing drink and a snack every so often, but when you do this multiple times a week, it can really add up and leave you feeling sluggish. Not to mention it can put a dent in your wallet. You can still GO to happy hours, just be mindful of how often and how much you’re drinking at these events. You can always throw out other “happy hour” options to your co-workers that don’t involve bars and restaurants. Maybe you can try a fitness class or take a walk together!
- Be mindful of alcohol intake. Alcohol use disorders are NUMBER THREE on the list of the top 10 conditions affecting millenials. If that’s not a cause for concern, I’m not sure what is. Yes, I know alcohol use disorders are much more complex than just putting the wine bottle down and not drinking. If you think you have a drinking problem, it’s definitely worth getting some help or talking to someone. No matter how much you drink, alcohol can impact so many aspects of our health. From the big risks, like increasing risk of heart disease and cancer, to less noticeable effects like interrupting your sleep pattern, increasing anxiety, and lowering productivity. The general recommendations for alcohol intake are up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. If you’re drinking more than that, binge-drinking on the weekends, or notice adverse effects even from drinking small amounts – then you may want to take a step back to figure out how you can decrease how much alcohol you consume.
- Keep mental health your top priority. If you struggle with depression, anxiety, addiction, substance abuse, etc…get some help. Given the fact that depression is number one on the list of health conditions millenials are diagnosed with – you are not alone and there are many different strategies out there to help manage your condition. I know that’s so much easier said than done. Even if you don’t have a mental health condition, it’s extremely important to take care of yourself to help prevent one from developing. Manage your stress, take a deep breath, talk to a friend, meditate, sit in a yoga pose, do what you need to do to feel centered. Life can be hard and stressful, but doing even the smallest bit of self care on a daily or weekly basis can prove to be SO helpful.
- See a health professional. Only 68% of millenials have a primary care physician, compared to 85% of baby boomers. Even if you feel healthy and invincible, going to the doctor on a regular basis will help you catch risk factors for certain diseases and conditions in advance. For example, you can find out you have high blood pressure in your 20s and take steps to correct it before heart disease develops. Or, you can make sure your fasting blood sugar levels are within healthy ranges to prevent type 2 diabetes from developing. And hey, if you just don’t want to see a doctor – fine – but at least seek help from a registered dietitian (hi!), a dentist, or a therapist!
- Work on your relationship with social media. Millenials – we are the generation that’s addicted to our phones and plagued with FOMO if we don’t check Instagram or Twitter every hour. As awesome as social media can be, it also has the potential to be very toxic and to fill our brains with comparison. When you’re looking at photos and highlights of everyone else’s lives every second of the day, it can make you feel like you’re not doing enough, like your life isn’t “cool” like theirs, like you haven’t accomplished what you’re supposed to. THIS IS SO BAD FOR OUR MENTAL HEALTH and I truly believe it’s a major reason why us millenials are so anxious and depressed. Social media is keeping us from having real-life human interaction and we’re constantly comparing ourselves to other. I challenge you to put your phone away (after you finish reading this post, of course!), go outside, and spend some quality time with a loved one – the benefits you’ll get from these outweigh anything that you’ll gain from being on social media 24/7.
I hope these tips are exactly what you need to stay on top of your health as a millenial. And guess what?! Even if you’re not a millenial; maybe you’re a baby boomer or a gen x-er or Y: these tips can apply to you as well! No matter what generation you’re in, there are always steps you can take to improve your health and well-being.
The best part about improving your health, millenial or not, is that you don’t have to do it alone. If you’re ready to take that step, I’d love to be part of your journey! I offer individualized nutrition consultations that will empower you to make informed decisions about your health and food intake. Interested in learning more, or finding out if we’re a good fit? Contact me here or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.