AGING: Older Americans Are Healthier Than Ever
Life is not as difficult for elderly Americans as it was a few years ago, according to a study in today's American Journal of Public Health. Quizzing elderly Americans about their level of difficulty in completing everyday tasks such as reading a newspaper, lifting 10 pounds, climbing stairs and walking a quarter of a mile, researchers found that more seniors in 1993 were able to perform the tasks with less difficulty than in 1984. The study found that seniors 80 and older made the most improvements, while "significant improvements" were made by the 65- to 79-year-old group. While poor, less-educated and minority groups fared worse than others, the disadvantaged groups still showed significant declines in disability (Freedman/Martin, 10/2 issue).
Implications For An Aging Society
NPR's Wendy Schmelzer reported, "For years there's been concern among public health experts that as the number of older Americans increases, so will the number of older adults who are hindered by major disabilities." But the study suggests that the future may not be as ominous as experts have predicted. "I'd say that this trend of declining disability is one of the most important trends I've seen since I've been in the field," said Dr. Richard Sutton of the National Institute of Aging, which helped fund the study. "If the decline accelerates or even continues at the same rate, it could have a marked effect on reducing the number of disabled elderly needing care, especially long-term care as the baby boom generation ages," Sutton continued ("All Things Considered," 10/1). Dr. Vicki Freedman, co-author of the Rand Corp. analysis of Census Bureau data, noted that while "the number of disabled elders is sure to rise ... it won't rise as steeply as feared." She said, "If you assumed that disability remains constant, the number of older disabled people would triple by 2020. If disability continues to decline at about 1% per year ... the number of disable people will 'only' double. Compared to tripling, that's good news, but we still will have a lot more disable people than we have today." The Boston Globe reports that the study's "implications touch on a wide range of issues, from the fiscal soundness of Medicare and the cost of long-term care insurance to cultural attitudes and expectations about the last third of the expected lifespan" (Knox, 10/2). Discussing reasons for the declining disability of older Americans, the NIA's Sutton suggested that "improvements in public health from the turn of the century" were still being felt, and that "better nutrition, fruits of better medical research and a generous Medicare program" were also to thank ("All Things Considered," 10/1).