Older Americans Living Longer, Study Says

ByPaul Recer

W A S H I N G T O N, Aug. 10, 2000 -- The number of Americans age 65 or olderincreased tenfold in the last century and the elderly are livinglonger, in more comfort and in better health than ever before,researchers report.

But up to one in four elderly Americans, by some measures, isnot sharing equally in this better life, according to a reportbeing released today that summarizes data from nine federalagencies.

“People are living longer and living more of their life inbetter health than before,” said Richard Suzman, an expert at theNational Institute on Aging, the lead agency in assembling thereport.

The challenge, he said, is to keep up that trend of improvementand to spread the benefits more equally among all races and ethnicgroups.

Suzman said the report will help policy-makers brace for theold-age arrival of the baby boomers, a population wave that willcreate “an enormous stretch” of society’s health and elder careservices.

Taking Data From Various Agencies

The study, “Older Americans 2000: Key Indicators ofWell-Being,” compiles for the first time statistics from variousagencies “to provide a unified picture of the overall health andwell-being of older Americans, said Katherine K. Wallman, chiefstatistician of the Office of Management and Budget.

“I see a very positive picture, but clearly problems doremain,” said Dr. Edward J. Sondik, the director of the NationalCenter for Health Statistics.

Included in the 128-page report are statistics of 31 keyindicators selected to portray the lives and lifestyles of olderAmericans. Suzman said that such information will be updatedperiodically and used to help shape federal services for theelderly in the future.

Among the findings:

There are approximately 35 million people in the United Statesage 65 or older, accounting for about 13 percent of the totalpopulation. In 1900, the number of older Americans was about 3.1million.

With the aging of baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964,America’s older population will double by 2030, reaching some 70million.

Life expectancy for Americans age 65 in 2000 is 18 years, onaverage. In 1900, 65-year-olds could expect to live, on average,another 12 years.

In 1998, women accounted for 58 percent of those over 65 and 70percent of those 85 or older. About 41 percent of the older womenlive alone.

The older population will become more ethnically and raciallydiverse, the study predicts. Of those age 65 or older now, about 84percent are non-Hispanic whites. By 2050, that number will be 64percent.

From 1959 to 1998, the percentage of older Americans living inpoverty declined from 35 percent to 11 percent.

The median net worth in households headed by older peopleincreased from 1984 to 1999 by 70 percent, but there is a startlingdisparity between races. In 1999, the median net worth inhouseholds headed by older black people was $13,000, compared with$181,000 for older white householders.

There was a wide difference in the rates of poverty betweenracial and ethnic groups for Americans 65 and older. In 1998, thepercentage of non-Hispanic whites living in poverty was 8.2,compared with 26.4 percent for non-Hispanic blacks, 16 percent fornon-Hispanic Asian and Pacific Islanders and 21 percent forHispanics.

Heart disease, cancer and stroke are the big three killers.Mortality rates for heart disease and stroke have declined by athird since 1980, while the rate for cancer has gone up slightly.

The rate of chronic disability among older Americans declinedfrom 24 percent in 1982 to 21 percent in 1994.

About 4 percent of the population 65 and older, some 1.46million people, were in nursing homes in 1997. About 192 out ofevery 1,000 people aged 85 or older were in nursing homes in 1997.The rate for this group in 1985 was 220 per 1,000.

A survey of Americans age 65 and older between 1994 and 1996found that the vast majority considered themselves healthy. Fornon-Hispanic whites, 74 percent considered themselves in good orexcellent health. For non-Hispanic blacks, the figure was 59.3percent, while it was 64.9 percent for Hispanics.

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