Key Takeaways From This Article:
- Millennials are actually unhealthier than their predecessors Gen X, according to new findings in a Blue Cross Blue Shield study
- A number of factors from the economy to social media can account for the sharp increase in health conditions in millennials
- Long term, these conditions can affect the earning potential to millennials and leave them with large medical bills
- Millennials need to take charge of their health and make key changes to ensure a healthier future for themselves
You might have heard of the infamous 27 Club where famous, talented people died tragically and prematurely at age 27. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse all died at 27 years old.
Well according to recent research, there is another 27 Club that almost anyone can and probably will join. According to a new study published by Blue Cross Blue Shield, millennial health plummets significantly after age 27. Millennials are unhealthier than previous generations. This generation is facing higher levels of depression, diabetes, and digestive disorders. And without any efforts to curb this decline, millennials will also face some of the highest medical costs later in life.
Despite being able to pinpoint the specific age this drop off in health seems to occur, it’s harder to pinpoint the specific cause. With a broad range of conditions increasing in prevalence—from substance abuse to Crohn’s disease to high cholesterol—it’s hard to say that there is just one source causing this overwhelming rise. To understand specifically how these conditions are increasing, we need to take a more macro view of the generation. What kind of world are the millennials living in to create this health crisis? When healthy living seems to be the talking point of every day, how is obesity and diabetes on the rise? When smoking hit an all time low within the last decade, how is millennial tobacco use somehow on the uptick?
Money, Money, Money
A good place to start is with the 2008 economic crash when many millennials were getting ready to enter the workforce. The Great Recession hit every industry and slowed hiring to a glacial crawl and those that had been hired prior to the recession saw a reduction in pay, hours, or opportunity. Recent college grads with newly minted degrees suddenly saw themselves fighting for part time work at their local Starbucks. It’s no coincidence that it was around this time the gig economy really took off with companies like Uber, Lyft, and Postmates snapping up unemployed graduates left and right. And even once the economy began to recover, this gig economy remained. The idea of cobbling together multiple jobs to make one survivable income became the norm. Companies, even after recovering from the recession, enjoyed retaining the money saving practice of offering more part time, per diem, or internship positions over full time, benefit covered positions.
Many millennials, stressed and worried, but determined not to lose against this economic downturn, returned to school for higher degrees, thinking this would edge them into finally landing a financially secure job (just the one!) and giving them a bit of relief. But schools are expensive. Graduate schools, especially so. Millennials piled on tens of thousands of dollars of debt in hopes that the investment would pay off for them in the end. But the jobs market continued to shrink and with so many millennials having gone back for higher degrees, everyone had higher degrees. They had saturated their own market.
According to the BCBS study, millennials have seen a 29% increase in hyperactivity disorders, such as ADHD and ADD. This can be due to stress exacerbating the disorder. Feeling increased levels of stress and anxiety can flare up ADD or ADHD symptoms, making it necessary for medication. But this increase in number can also be related to a sharp increase in stress. A prolonged period of stress can have symptoms that are similar to hyperactivity disorders. When you’re overwhelmingly stressed and anxious, you can lack focus, be disorganized, be easily distracted, feel restless, have trouble sleeping—symptoms also found in hyperactivity disorders. ADD or ADHD for adults often pair with depression and anxiety. When you’re stressed, depression commonly attaches itself to you as well. Without more micro population studies, it’s hard to say exactly what has caused this surge in millennial hyperactivity disorders but it is clear that stress levels are high, aggravating their mental well-being.
You can also see stress playing a part in digestive disorders like Crohn’s disease. According to the BCBS report, millennials have seen a 10% increase in Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Studies have shown that adverse life events, chronic stress, and depression increase the likelihood of relapse in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases. Studies are exploring the concept of psychoneuroimmunology, the mechanisms by which the nervous system can affect immune functions at both systemic and gut mucosal levels. Both ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are chronic relapsing and remitting diseases. Which means they can get better, when the patient is feeling good and taking care of themselves. Or they can get worse when the patient is not. And psychological stress and its effects on both diseases are being studied more rigorously after seeing more positive connections between the two. The millennial rise in inflammatory bowel diseases seems like another piece for the psychoneuroimmunology proof puzzle.
You Are What You Eat
Now with how busy millennials are, working several different gigs to stay afloat, it’d seem counterintuitive to see rising numbers in obesity and diabetes. They’re so busy! They’re moving all the time! And that’s true. They are busy. With platforms like Slack, Zoom, and email, there is no excuse not to be working all the time. Gone are the old 9-5. And the gig economy prides itself on having no work clock. You can work any hours! And many millennials take that as meaning, you should be working every hour. And that means most millennials have very little time. They have almost no time for themselves. You can see that in the various industries people accuse millennials of ‘killing.’ What millennial has the time or money to get married in their mid twenties now? With so many millennials either getting married later or not at all, the diamond industry has been ‘ruined.’ People accuse millennials of liking cheap, quickly made home goods. But when you need to be able to move across town, state, or country to chase that dream job, you can’t be weighed down by heavy furniture or antique china. Plus, with what money can you afford those items anyway? So millennials have killed ‘home goods.’ And unless they’re going to sit down or wait in line for a particular food experience, millennials need food fast and cheap, leading to the rise of fast casuals. And while many fast casuals are trying to make a turn for the healthy, many of them are still far from it.
As viral as the meme about avocado toast went, most millennials are still not eating very healthily. 4.1 out of every 100 millennials now have Type 2 diabetes, a 19% increase from Gen X. High cholesterol and blood pressure is up as well at 12% and 16% respectively. Healthy food can be expensive (especially compared to fast casual) and time consuming to make if you decide to make it yourself. And again, time is that precious commodity most millennials don’t have. One of the reasons the avocado toast idea became such a viral meme was to make fun of reckless, spendthrift millennials. Who pays $15 for toast and avocado? Well, exactly. If that’s how much healthy foods cost, no wonder in the age of avocado toast and kombucha, obesity and diabetes are somehow on the rise. Dietary education might be higher, meaning more millennials are aware of what they should be eating, but that doesn’t mean that they are eating those things. And poor diet can inflame digestive disorders such as Crohn’s and can make it harder to manage hyperactivity disorder symptoms.
And speaking of the lack of time many millennials face, there can be a correlation made between this frenetic lifestyle and the sudden rise in tobacco usage. For the generation that grew up in the era of ‘Just Say No’ ads, millennials somehow have a 10% higher rate of tobacco addiction than Generation X had. But when time is at a premium and you need something for stress relief, you need something portable and less time consuming than alcohol or drugs (not that substance abuse isn’t on the rise as well). It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that e-cigarette companies such as Juul have become so big within the last few years.
But the most pervasive culprit, if not the biggest, has to be social media. It’s the buzzy topic that countless articles have been written on. By now, most of us realize that social media is more than just a means of mindless escape. Platforms such as Twitter and Instagram have been used to promote everything from social justice causes to Hollywood movies. It’s no longer just everyday photos and mundane updates from friends. It’s an account of you and your ‘brand.’ In almost any industry, any job, people are expected to have some kind of profile on some platform, be it Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram. You are expected to curate it, grow it, and maintain it. And if that isn’t what you’re doing, you feel the pressure and anxiety of not doing it by seeing others doing it. And with all of these platforms just a thumb touch away on your phone, you are constantly plugged in, constantly connected, constantly working. And this is connected to the sharpest increase of them all: major depression in millennials has increased 31%.
Of course social media isn’t the root cause of this rise in depression. But it very much encapsulates all of the things that have contributed to this increase. In your hand, every millennial scrolls through and sees the image of what they think they should have in life—the perfect job, the perfect home, the perfect family. But having come of age in an economic crisis, most millennials are still scrabbling for financial security. They are realizing there is no ‘perfect job’ anymore. There is only a series of gigs. And home ownership seems like a fantasy for many. More millennials are living with their parents than any previous generation. Having roommates is the norm, not the exception, in many expensive big cities. And more and more millennials are delaying marriage. And many of them are putting aside parenthood and family planning altogether. Lack of financial security within a shrinking market means people are less inclined to do something as expensive as have a child.
So what does this all mean in the long term? It means millennials may be facing a huge medical bill at the end of their lives. They also may see a decrease in their earning capacity as they are beset by medical problems. Moody’s Analytics, based on the findings drawn from the Blue Cross Blue Shield report, estimates that by 2027 health costs for millennials could run as much as 33% higher than Gen X-er at the same age. And millennials may have a hard time paying for these costs since sick and unhealthy people are less productive. And poor health also discourages entrepreneurship. People can’t attempt something as risky as starting their own company when they are worried about health insurance or managing their chronic conditions. And on a macro level, this can be a huge blow to the country. Millennials make up a quarter of the nation’s labor force and as a country, having a quarter of our workforce unhealthy or out of commission can severely affect our economy.
This BCBS report has been a wake up call for many. Perhaps it is a wake up call for you as well. If you are a millennial reading this, it can feel disheartening, overwhelming, and perhaps even a bit hopeless. But there is always a chance for change, for improvement. Depression is a widespread condition affecting many millennials but so many either don’t have the time, coverage, or money to see a traditional therapist. Luckily there are other methods. There are great apps such as TalkSpace that allow you to connect with a therapist over the phone. You can get great personalized, affordable help without having to drive or even leave your house. There are other accessible apps that can help with mental health. HeadSpace is another app that coaches you through meditation practices that can help lower anxiety and ease stress.
Even small, short bursts of exercise can improve mental and physical health. There are tons of free exercise routines available on YouTube. Even 10 to 15 minutes a day of just some light cardio can greatly improve how you feel. There are also great apps that allow for quick workouts anywhere. Nike offers great running and cross training workouts on their apps for free. Most app work outs don’t even require much equipment; some don’t require any. Even a walk around the block or local park has shown to reduce cortisol levels, improve stress and anxiety, and lift mood. For millennials, taking care of yourself can seem like a luxury but as these reports have shown, it’s actually a necessity.
Despite the overwhelming circumstances many millennials find themselves in, it’s important to remember that no one is alone. For every obstacle, there are thousands of people trying to find and offer solutions and help. This generation is scrappy, if nothing else, and has learned to adapt to any given circumstance. With some research and some effort, millennials can slowly improve the quality of their lives and, in turn, their health, ensuring a brighter, healthier future for themselves.