44% of older millennials already have a chronic health condition. Here’s what that means for their futures

As millennials begin to turn 40 in 2021, Make It has launched Middle-Aged Millennials, a series exploring how the oldest members of this generation have grown into adulthood amid the backdrop of the Great Recession and the Covid-19 pandemic, student loans, stagnant wages and rising costs of living.

Every morning, Kristin Bennett starts her day off by swallowing about 14 different supplements and vitamins designed to help her keep the worst symptoms of her disease at bay.

Bennett has relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease she’s been dealing with for about 20 years after being diagnosed in 2001. She just turned 40 last month.

Health conditions like Bennett’s can take a toll, both financially and emotionally. And unfortunately, as the oldest millennials start to hit 40, many are finding themselves coping with chronic health conditions — more so than previous generations, according to some recent research.

About 44% of older millennials born between 1981 and 1988 report having been diagnosed with at least one chronic health condition, according to a recent survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of CNBC Make It among over 4,000 U.S. adults, about 830 of whom were between the ages 33 to 40.

Chart showing how many chronic illnesses older millennials report having vs. the general public.
There’s “no question” that some emerging evidence shows many millennials are unhealthier than predicted, says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

“Hypertension, diabetes and obesity drives a lot of that,” Benjamin says, adding that the obesity epidemic may be one of the root causes of the rise in rates of hypertension, diabetes and even certain types of cancer. Benjamin also says that studies show millennials are far less likely to be smokers, making diseases related to smoking less common.

Among the older millennials surveyed by CNBC Make It, migraine headaches, major depression and asthma are the three most common ailments. Type 2 diabetes and hypertension round out the top five.

Chart showing which chronic illnesses older millennials report having vs. the general public.
The prevalence of these diseases not only affects millennials’ health and lifespan, but also their bank accounts. Studies show those with at least one chronic condition spend twice as much on out-of-pocket health-care expenses than those without any medical issues. Those with two concurrent chronic health issues spend five times as much.

Those under 65 with circulatory system diseases, such as high blood pressure and heart conditions, spend more than $1,500 a year on out-of-pocket costs, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The average health insurance plan participant without a chronic condition pays just $778 a year out of pocket.

Over the course of a lifetime, those costs can add up — especially if a patient is diagnosed at a younger age.

Beyond out-of-pocket spending, millennials with a chronic health condition also could see their annual income reduced by as much as $4,500 per person due to medical expenses and even reduced work hours or job loss because of poor health, according to a 2019 report from Moody’s Analytics that analyzed data from Blue Cross Blue Shield Health.

“At the end of the day, if these trends continue, then you’ll have higher health-care costs,” Benjamin says. “You’ll be exchanging the baby boomer generation for a generation with even higher health-care costs just because of normal inflation and the fact these chronic diseases are there.”

To help keep her symptoms at bay, Bennett takes about a dozen supplements each morning, as well as other vitamins throughout the day. All told, she spends about $400 a month on more than 20 different vitamins, as well as powdered supplements she adds to drinks and smoothies. Bennett also sees a naturopathic doctor about once a month, a massage therapist when she can and attends physical therapy as needed. Those types of services can typically range from $75 to $150 per session.

But despite all the effort, Bennett started to experience flare-ups in 2018 that have persisted through the coronavirus pandemic, including falls, double vision and even trouble walking and standing for long periods. An avid gardener, one of her more serious falls ended with a doctor’s visit after she hit her head on a wooden stake after tripping outside of her home in Clinton, Washington.

Yet Bennett’s health-care costs could be much higher. For eight years after her diagnosis, she was on medications that, without insurance, generally cost between $3,000 and $50,000 a year.

When she lost her job in 2009, Bennett spent most of her unemployment benefits paying for COBRA insurance to ensure she had coverage for both her medication and her pregnancy. But Bennett, now a mother of three, couldn’t keep up with the costs and eventually stopped taking prescription medications in favor of a less expensive, more alternative medicine route.

Getting diagnosed with MS has given Bennett the mindset that anything can completely change at any given moment. “I don’t really know what the future will bring,” she says. “I’m still hoping that I can walk well again, but I also know that might not happen, and I might need a wheelchair someday.”

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