TUESDAY, April 26, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Older Americans have seen modest improvements in their quality of life over the past decade, but many health and economic gains have been slow or uneven, a new AARP report finds.

The proportion of the 50-plus set who report being in "excellent" or "very good" health, for example, rose 1.2 percentage points over the decade.

But, the report shows, only about one quarter of them are physically active, and the proportion not overweight or obese declined by more than 4 percentage points over the most recent five years. In addition, the self-reported health status for those 75 and older slipped 2.5 percentage points.

"To see a little bit of a dip it makes you wonder if something's going on there," said Susan Raetzman, who heads the health team at AARP's Public Policy Institute.

AARP's second annual report, The State of 50+ America 2005, was based on an analysis of 25 indicators of health, well-being and economic status. The data came from government surveys and AARP's own survey of older Americans.

Over the most recent year, the fortunes of midlife and older Americans have improved on 12 indicators and declined on six. That's an improvement over the prior year, which showed 10 indicators declining and five improving, AARP noted.

There were slight gains on several economic measures, including family income and financial assets.

On the health front, midlife and older Americans have some reason to be hopeful.

A new mental health measure included in this year's report shows improvements in the percentage of 50-plus Americans who do not have signs of depression. And the percentage who engage in physical activity increased modestly over the past year.

But the report highlights significant gaps in health coverage and affordability.

Thirteen percent of adults aged 50 to 64 lack health insurance, for example, and 43 percent of adults 65 and older do not have stable drug coverage.

There is growing concern, too, that medical expenses are contributing to older Americans' personal debt.

One-third of respondents to an earlier AARP study who said their debt increased also reported having problems with medical bills.

The population's growing reliance on Social Security is also worrisome, the AARP suggested. Sixty percent of seniors aged 75 and older and almost 40 percent of those aged 64 to 74 now say they receive more than half of their income from Social Security, according to the report. Although the government program was never meant to be the sole source of people's retirement income, those percentages have inched upward in recent years, it said.

That trend is critical to the current debate about reforming Social Security, AARP noted. The senior advocacy group opposes the Bush administration's plan to divert funds from that program to create private retirement accounts for future retirees.

Barbara Kennelly, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and a former Congresswoman from Connecticut, agreed with AARP's assessment that seniors are becoming more dependent on Social Security.

"The study demonstrates why Social Security should be strengthened for future retirees, not replaced with private investment accounts," she said.

More information

The Food and Drug Administration has a wealth of information on healthy living for seniors.

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