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Older Americans Can Expect Longer, Healthier Lives

Big gains in longevity for those over 65, report finds

THURSDAY, Nov. 18, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The average 65-year-old American woman can now expect nearly two more decades of life, while men of the same age will live an average of 16 years longer.

That's according to new statistics just released by a consortium of 12 federal agencies.

Those "golden years" may also be more gilded now than in decades past: According to the report, disability rates continue to fall among U.S. seniors, boosting their quality of life.

"The take-home message is that over the past few decades there have been some very significant improvements in the well-being of older Americans, and it's shown across a variety of indicators," said Saadia Greenberg, a senior analyst at the Administration on Aging, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

His agency helped compile Older Americans 2004: Key Indicators of Well-Being, a detailed analysis of the health and well-being of Americans aged 65 and over. A report is released every four years.

Experts stressed, however, that not everything is coming up roses for older Americans.

"On the downside, there's been a dramatic increase in obesity, and we see even worse trouble coming down the pike," said Richard Suzman, associate director of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), another partner in the report.

"That's got to be tackled," he said, "both through reducing obesity and through treating the effects of obesity."

The report gathers data from a dozen federal institutions, focusing on areas such as economics, health status, demographics and the use of health-care services. Overall, the researchers looked at 37 key indicators reflecting the lives of America's 36 million citizens aged 65 or older.

Among their key findings:

  • Increased life span: In 1900, the average 65-year-old could expect another 12 years of life, on average. A century later, in 2000, life expectancy post-65 had increased to 19 years for women and 16 years for men. Similarly, in 1900, 85-year-old Americans could expect an additional four years of life. By 2000, that statistic increased seven years for women and six years for men.
  • Reduced disability: According to the report, in 1984, 25 percent of Americans 65 years of age or older suffered from some type of chronic disability. By 1999, that number had fallen to about 20 percent, for a total of 6.8 million disabled.
  • Rising obesity: In keeping with trends in other age groups, a full 69 percent of older Americans were either overweight or clinically obese by 2002, according to the report. Rates for obesity among individuals aged 64 to 75 have doubled over the past 30 years, rising from 18 percent in the 1970s to 36 percent today.
  • Fewer smokers: In 1965, nearly one in three (29 percent) elderly Americans smoked. By 2002, that number had fallen to just 10 percent. Most of this trend has been driven by declines in smoking among men, although older women's smoking rates have remained steady at about 9 percent to 10 percent over the past four decades.
  • More prescriptions: Older Americans make more trips to the pharmacist now than a decade ago: In 1992, the average 65-year-old filled 18 prescriptions per year; by 2000 that number had risen to 30.

Edward Sondik, director of the National Center for Health Statistics at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the overall health of older Americans is improving.

"Particularly with regards to the drop in disability -- that's really quite positive, because it's one thing to say that longevity is increasing, but the real question is 'How healthy are these people?' And the quality of their lives, in terms of lack of disability, does seem to be improving," he said.

But Sondik, whose office also helped draft the report, stressed that gains made by seniors aren't shared equally by all.

"There continue to be disparities between groups," based on economics, education levels, race and ethnicity, he said. "That's one of the real challenges here."

The steep rise in obesity rates threatens to undermine recent health gains, too. "This increase has got very serious implications for this age group," Sondik said. "For an older population that's lived with this increased weight and it's effects on their physical health -- I don't contemplate a positive future."

Still, education efforts are making headway, he said, and new and better treatments are improving lives every day. In fact, Sondik views increases in the use of prescription drugs among seniors as a positive thing.

"There's simply more of a choice for patients than there was in the past," he said. "For example, cholesterol control -- if we look back a decade, we were given few choices. Today, we have a variety of [drug] choices. Certainly, people are being better cared for."

More information

For a detailed look at the report, go to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics.

SOURCES: Saadia Greenberg, senior analyst, U.S. Administration on Aging, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.; Richard Suzman, Ph.D., associate director, Behavioral and Social Research, National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Md.; Edward Sondik, Ph.D, director, National Center for Health Statistics, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Nov. 18, 2004, Older Americans 2004: Key Indicators of Well-Being
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