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Most Older Americans Living Longer and Better

But problems persist, such as disparities among races, report finds,,,,

THURSDAY, March 27 (HealthDay News) -- Older Americans are living longer than ever and enjoying better health and financial security, a new report finds.

Yet there continue to be lingering disparities between racial and ethnic groups.

In 2006, there were an estimated 37 million Americans 65 and older -- 2 percent of the population. By 2030, it's estimated at 71.5 million people will be 65 and older -- almost 20 percent of the population, according to the report, Older Americans 2008: Key Indicators of Well-Being.

"This report comes at a critical time," Edward Sondik, director of the National Center for Health Statistics, said Thursday in a prepared statement. "As the baby boomers age and America's older population grows larger and more diverse, community leaders, policymakers and researchers have an even greater need for reliable data to understand where older Americans stand today and what they may face tomorrow."

The report examined five broad areas of well-being: economics, health status, health risks and behaviors and health care.

Even though life expectancy for Americans continues to increase for those 65 years of age, it is lower than in countries such as Canada, France Japan and Sweden. For example, Japanese women 65 years of age live 3.2 years longer than women in the United States. Among men, the difference is 1.2 years, according to the report.

In terms of overall health, key indicators such as smoking rates, flu and pneumonia vaccinations and screening for breast cancer have improved but have leveled off in recent years.

As for chronic conditions, women reported higher levels of arthritis compared with men. Men reported higher levels of heart disease and cancer. Among African-Americans, there were higher levels of high blood pressure and diabetes compared with whites. Hispanics reported higher levels of diabetes than did non-Hispanic whites.

The number of people 65 and older who are obese increased from 22 percent in 1988-1994 to 31 percent in 2000-2006. At the same time, there was no significant change in the number of older people who engaged in physical activity. In fact, most days Americans 65 and older reported spending half their time watching television. Those 75 and older, however, spent more time reading and relaxing and thinking, compared with people 55 to 64 years old.

In addition, as people aged, they spent less time visiting friends or attending social functions. Socializing declined from 13 percent of those 55 to 64 to 10 percent of those 75 and older. And, time spent devoted to sports, exercising, recreation and travel also declined with age, according to the report.

Older people's ability to obtain, process and understand health information or services -- called health literacy -- declined with age. Thirty-nine percent of people 75 and older had below basic health literacy, compared with 23 percent of people ages 65 to 74, and 13 percent of people 50 to 64.

Escalating health-care costs, particularly for prescription drugs, also affected older Americans: From 1992 to 2004, costs rose from $8,644 to $13,052. In 2004, prescription drugs made up 61 percent of out-of-pocket health costs for older Americans, the report found.

These costs are expected to be mitigated by the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. From 2006 to 2007, the number of people enrolled in the program increased from 18.2 million to 19.7 million, according to the report.

Despite these rising costs, many older Americans are more economically secure. From 1974 to 2006, the number of older Americans living below the poverty line decreased from 15 percent to 9 percent. In addition, the number of older Americans with higher incomes increased from 18 percent to 29 percent.

However, racial disparities existed, with net worth among whites 65 and older six times that of older African-Americans. And, more older Americans, particularly women, continued to work after 55.

The report was prepared by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, which represents 15 agencies responsible for collecting data on aging. The last report was released in 2006.

One expert thinks that lack of physical activity and lack of social activity are the two biggest factors affecting the health of older Americans.

"It's kind of sad when you think about all the money and all the effort that has gone into physical activity awareness and that the actual amount has not increased over the last 10 years," said Colin Milner, chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging. "What that is saying is, we're doing something wrong."

Milner thinks new ways of getting people to be more active are needed. People don't realize that only a little physical activity can have a major impact on their health, he said.

"People see athletic activity, and they say: 'Forget it. I can't do that, I'm old,' " Milner said."We can save roughly $77 billion in health-care costs by increasing physical activity," he noted.

Milner said he's also concerned that older people spend too much time watching TV and becoming socially isolated.

"How long is it going to be before we engineer socialization out of our lifestyle," Milner said. "By 2020, depression will be the second-leading cause of premature death according to the World Health Organization. And now, you're taking socialization out of a lifestyle."

More information

To see the full report, visit the U.S. Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics.

SOURCES Colin Milner, chief executive officer, International Council on Active Aging, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada; March 27, 2008, report, Older Americans 2008: Key Indicators of Well-Being, Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics

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