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Study: Life getting better for American seniors
Scripps Howard News Service


March 14, 2006

Life is getting better for American seniors, according to a new government snapshot that depicts a group getting healthier and better educated, one growing in numbers and less likely to be poor.

The report, "65+ in the United States - 2005," was compiled by the Census Bureau last year for the National Institute on Aging, and released Thursday.

"This report tells us that we have made remarkable progress in improving the health and well-being of older Americans, but there is much left to do," said Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the NIA.




Among the highlights of the report:

- With more than 34 million Americans age 65 and older living today, seniors make up about 12 percent of the population, including more than 4 million who are 85 and older and 50,000 centenarians. By 2030, 1 in 5 persons in the United States will be elderly.

- Nine states - California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas - each have more than 1 million elderly residents.

- Florida (where 17.6 percent of the population is elderly), Pennsylvania (15.6 percent) and West Virginia (15.3 percent) continue to be the "oldest" states. And 75 percent of seniors nationwide still live in metropolitan areas. But as more retirees head to the West and South Atlantic states other than Florida, the concentrations are gradually changing, the report noted.

Aside from the increased numbers, "the elderly of tomorrow are going to look very different than they do today in terms of education, racial diversity, family structures, work experience and wealth," said Victoria Velkoff, head of the Census Bureau's aging-studies branch.

Three-quarters of the 10.5 million older Americans living alone in 2003 were women, but this is only partly due to women having an average life expectancy that's 5.4 years longer than men. Divorce also plays a role. In 1960, just 1.6 percent of older men and 1.5 percent of older women were divorced. By 2003, 7 percent of senior men and 8.6 percent of senior women were divorced and had not remarried.

The aging population also reflects the nation's changing ethnic composition.

In 2003, 83 percent of older Americans were non-Hispanic whites, 8 percent blacks, 6 percent Hispanics and 3 percent Asians. By 2030, the report estimates that 72 percent will be white, 11 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black and 5 percent Asian.

Officials said the report captures trends - such as health status, education and wealth - that are expected to accelerate as baby boomers start hitting 65 in the next five years, and that may not be recognized by the public and policymakers.

"Many people have an image of aging that may be 20 years out of date. The very current portrait presented here shows how much has changed and where the trends may be headed in the future," said Richard Suzman, director of the NIA's Behavioral and Social Research Program.

The proportion of seniors reporting that they have a disability fell from 26 percent in 1982 to under 20 percent in 1999. "We're finding that increased disability with aging is not inevitable, and we hope we can accelerate this," Hodes said, both through further medical advances and changes in lifestyle patterns like exercise and diet.

The proportion of elderly holding at least a bachelor's degree rose from 3.4 percent in 1950 to 17.4 percent in 2003, and is expected to top 25 percent by 2030. And between 1959 and 2003, the proportion of people 65 and older living below the poverty level fell from 35 percent to 10 percent.

But, Hodes noted, there are troubling indications that illness-related disabilities in younger people are on the rise, and this may affect the quality of life future seniors can expect to enjoy. For instance, just between the late 1980s and 2000, the proportion of senior men considered obese rose from 24 percent to 33 percent; and from 27 percent to 39 percent among senior women.

Suzman stressed that even with health improvements, the United States is not keeping pace with most Western European countries and Japan when it comes to extending life expectancy or the years of "healthy" life that people can enjoy free of disability or major illness. And, he said, "we're not entirely sure why we're falling behind."


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