Snap. Crackle. Pop.
It's a sound that greeted baby boomers at their childhood breakfast tables.
But now it's greeting them sooner - when they slide out of bed and hear their aging bodies creak in protest over too much exertion, too often, as the 40- to55-year-old set tries desperately to cling to fading youth.
Ted Schmidt first noticed it a few years ago. Sure, he'd already broken an ankle during pick-up basketball, popped his back out several times and was still babying his throwing arm's torn rotator cuff. But miss his annual pre-Super Bowl football game with the guys?
No way. And, afterward:
"I curled up on the couch," chuckles Schmidt, 44, the head of instructional technologies at Buffalo State College. "I actually had to call in sick the next day, I was so sore."
So many fitness-obsessed boomers are now suffering from sports injuries, tendinitis, arthritis and bursitis that the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has coined a term for their condition:
"It's a new phenomenon," Dr. Nicholas DiNubile, the Philadelphia orthopedic surgeon who invented the word, told The News during a recent phone interview.
"This is the first time in history we've had a generation trying to stay active on an aging frame." Worse, he adds, they also suffer from what he dubs Fix-Me-Itis, "which means they insist on being normal again as soon as possible."
Ibuprofen, ice and two weeks rest for an injury? Yeah, right. Try MRIs, surgeries, braces and any other high-tech gadgetry that can put them back in the game, pronto.
"I definitely know that type of patient," confirms Dr. Leslie J. Bisson, an orthopedic surgeon with Northtowns Orthopedics. "We spend a great deal of time explaining to them that what's needed for over-use injuries is rest and rehabilitation. What they want to hear is that their knee can be "scoped' and made all better and they can go right back to what they were doing. And the thing is, they just can't."
But entitlement-minded boomers can't seem to accept that.
And their reluctance to go to the sidelines is starting to strain the medical system and the economy.
How do you know if you have Boomeritis? Ask yourself these questions, based on research from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons:
- Do you have one or more places on your body that routinely ache, snap, pop or click audibly at night, in the morning or when you go upstairs - yet you play sports with the same intensity and frequency as when you were in your 20s?
- Do you continue a sport or workout even though some part of your body is already hurt, aching or stinging?
- Do you self-medicate when you get hurt because seeking medical treatment is either too time-consuming or too restrictive?
- Do you think this is true?: You're not getting older, you're getting better -- as well as stronger, sleeker/more massively muscled and generally more fit than you were in college?
If you answered yes to two or more of those questions, you probably are well on your way to a raging case of Boomeritis.
But don't bother explaining to your folks why you're always sore and wearing braces from head to toe, says DiNubile. They probably won't get it. They knew when to quit, or at least when to make age-based changes.
"If our parents had done some of the things we're doing, at the ages we're at, they'd never dare try them again," he says. "Don't get me wrong. Being active will extend your life. But we're simply not doing it right. And we're often realizing that too late."
Or, as Chuck Geary, a physical therapist with Sports Focus Physical Therapy in Orchard Park, observes:
"I think what we're seeing is that this generation will acknowledge that it's getting older, but only when an event or injury slaps them in the face." Many Western New Yorkers have felt that slap recently.
A rude awakening
Since his 20s, Rick Izzo played sports almost every night, be it ice hockey, football, basketball or softball, "plus hitting the weight room a few times a week." But now at 39, with six kids (including 2-year-old twins) and general manager duties at Superior Auto Sales in Hamburg, Izzo has learned the hard way that when playtime is compromised, so is the body's ability to play.
"We were playing football this year, and I pulled my groin so badly I couldn't even push off from my leg," he recalls. He iced it and rested, but two weeks later discovered he was still sore and still had restricted movement.
"I was surprised. My doctor said, look, you're aging. But still I went and played catch after that. And it was different. My wife said, 'I think you're getting too old for this.' "
Izzo isn't sure. "I've probably got about five years left."
At 41, Donna Decarolis isn't sure she's ready to dial it down, either. And that's despite chronic forearm tendinitis from competitive tennis. And crewing. And weightlifting. In fact, even after Boomeritis is described to her, Decarolis, who is the head of marketing for National Fuel Gas, demurs.
"I mean, yes, I am feeling a lot of aches and pain more, but I haven't really cut back on any of . . ." Pause.
"Oh. I have it, don't I?," she laughs. "It's true! I'm one of those people who think if I get hurt, 'Oh, stop being such a baby and toughen up.' I do think that even though I'm aging, I can go harder and harder and I'll get better and better."
Angela Demerle was smart enough to realize that she could not "go harder and get better" as she approached 50. But, she was "really stupid," she says, for thinking she could go in-line skating with her boyfriend before she'd adequately learned to stop.
The result: a broken right hip, broken right shoulder, broken clavicle, three months in a wheelchair and six months of physical therapy.
"My doctor kept saying, 'OK, why did you do this?'," says Demerle, an environmental attorney with Harter, Sechrist and Emery. Two years after the accident, she is blunt in her assessment of what happened and why.
"I was out of shape. I should not have been doing that, at that age, without having conditioned myself. And at that point, if you haven't conditioned yourself for something, then you're gonna be in trouble."
Tom Haney has been conditioning himself since June, which is when he decided that he'd like to become a marathon runner. His first race is next month in Washington, D.C. He's 53. And yes, he admits, he should know better. "I certainly have that 'Boomeritis' mentality," chuckles Haney, executive director of the Village Glen Tennis and Fitness Club in Williamsville.
"I know I'm not supposed to be starting orthopedically-challenging activities. But I do have that sense of slowing down the aging process, that I'm not getting older, I'm getting better."
He sees the largely upscale, middle-aged clientele at the club acting the same way.
"I see many people exercising in a way that we would classify as being for other than health reasons. It's performance-oriented. They're striving to do more today than yesterday, and more at 50, 60 and 70 than at 20, 30 and 40. And some may reach that new level, especially if this is the first time in their lives they've been able to devote time to fitness."
Some. Others, caution medical experts, may merely reach a level of permanent injury.
Why are 77 million Americans pushing themselves too far, too hard and for too long?
Feeling like a kid
The reasons are both psychological and practical.
First, it may be redundant to say so, but baby boomers hate the notion that youth and play time are over. It may be getting dark out, but no one's willing to call the game.
"When I play sports, it gives me that feeling I had as a kid," says Decarolis. "We're all so busy and hectic now that being active and playing sports is the only time we get to feel we're back in those days of being care-free kids again."
Haney points out that the hesitancy to age is fueled by the fact that his is the first generation to have been bombarded since childhood with media images and a "silly culture" of eternal youth and perfection.
"The emphasis on the body in the last decade has been huge. Every guy is supposed to have ripped six-pack abs and every woman is supposed to have trim thighs and cut delts. We've gone from the vigorous pursuit of health to the vigorous pursuit of perfection."
Secondly, many boomers so hate the complications, referrals and waiting inherent in the medical establishment they opt to self-treat rather than seek professional help.
That leads to poorly healed bodies ripe for repeat injury and repeat lost time from work.
It also leads to bodies that will need more extensive, expensive medical attention when they do finally get help.
"They so hate the process that they'll read a little here, get something off the Net, gather information and try to fix themselves rather than get into the medical system," says Geary, the physical therapist. "It's not 10 days before they see us, it's sometimes four weeks."
Also straining the system are the boomers who go the other direction and demand all manner of high-tech treatments to make better -- or perfect -- what may not be fixable.
"Who's paying for all this? They want the very best cutting-edge technology even though they have no indication of needing an MRI, what they need is rest and rehab."
DiNubile frets about the cost, too. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. This is just the injuries we can track through ER visits. The rest aren't even on the radar yet." But, he acknowledges that behind the more-pain-than-gain phenomenon is a "walking-working-wounded" generation that takes seriously the importance of health.
"They're not letting go (of their fitness) easily. But it's good they recognize the right dose of activity. Being non-sedentary is good. Just not this non-sedentary."