In 2019, there were 54 million adults aged 65 or older in the U.S. By 2040, this number is estimated to rise to nearly 81 million. And as Americans live longer, their health needs grow more complex – elderly adults experience more chronic disorders, requiring more specialized care. Having access to quality health care will be critical, but is the U.S. prepared to meet the needs of this population?
Results from the 2023 Senior Report, released annually by the United Health Foundation, suggest that the answer so far is not promising. The research team, pulling data from 2019 to 2021, highlighted alarming trends occurring among older adults, due to behavioral, social, and economic factors.
Poverty became more prevalent, increasing from 9.4% of older adults living below the poverty line to 10.3%. Physical inactivity was also more common. Even when isolating the data to adults in “fair or better health,” nearly one-third reported doing no physical activity in the past 30 days (outside of their regular job). 2021 was also the second consecutive year that early death rates for adults aged 65-74 increased, reversing years of declining rates.
The Senior Report does offer good news, however, identifying ways that the U.S. has boosted resources and support for older adults. Nationally, the number of geriatric providers and the number of home health care workers have increased. The Administration on Aging distributed more funding to community services for older adults and their caregivers. The dollars per adult increased from $57 to $62. Potentially related to this, home-delivered meals increased.
As the number of older adults in the U.S. increases, this information will be vital for individual state government agencies who want to improve health for one of our most vulnerable populations.
Similarly, individual states have improved in their efforts to serve this population. Previous research by the United States Census Bureau found that adults aged 65 and older tend to move to new states in search of warmer climates. Unfortunately, states that are popular with retirees are not guaranteed to be the healthiest for older adults; the top 5 healthiest states are Utah, New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota, and Vermont.
Although not warm like Florida, Utah had several strengths: its low poverty rate, high volunteerism rate, and high level of hospice care use. And it had substantial improvements in 2020 and 2021, with 40% fewer older adults experiencing frequent mental distress, 40% fewer adults experiencing food insecurity, and 80% fewer drug deaths.
On the other hand, Mississippi ranked the lowest. In particular, Mississippi struggled with its early death rate, poverty rate, and rate of food insecurity. But it did make strides in certain areas, such as 50% more home health care workers and 14% more households carrying high-speed internet by 2021.
The researchers note that the disparities that exist earlier in adulthood – health differences based on race, income, and education – become more pronounced as adults age. But they emphasize that disparities exist in each state; there is no perfect state. For example, even with all of its positive changes, Utah continues to have a high geriatric suicide rate and a small geriatric provider pool.
The Senior Report data is helpful for individuals who are nearing retirement and are considering moving across state lines, looking for the best quality-of-life. It is crucial knowledge for health professionals and policymakers across the country, who can utilize this evidence to guide their efforts to improve the accessibility, cost, and quality of health care services for older adults. And as the number of older adults in the U.S. increases, this information will be vital for individual state government agencies who want to improve health for one of our most vulnerable populations.
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