We have all seen articles and statistics about the “graying population” and are euphemistically told that we can look forward to our “golden years”. Just to remind us of our aging status, we get AARP cards mailed to us in our 50′s and are sent reminders to register for Medicare the year we turn 65. (On the bright side, senior discounts follow.) How are we faring in our getting-older transition?
A new report titled “Old Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-being” was released by the US Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics. (The government cares!) This report tracks the trends in the aging population in the US and compares our life expectancy with that of other countries. Among developed countries, the USA is relatively young. Only about 13% of our population was 65 years or older in 2010, compared with 23% in Japan and more than 15% in most European countries.
The percentage of US population age 65 years or older is, however, predicted to increase to nearly 20% in 2030. That graying portion of our population is increasing due to increased longevity and declining fertility. Life expectancy for Americans who survive to age 65 was 20.3 years for women and 17.6 years for men when last calculated in 2009. Before we congratulate ourselves, the report also compares our longevity to other developed countries whose numbers were better, especially the UK and Australia. Although years of existence may not indicate years of health, the report found that 76% of Americans age 65 years or older stated that their health was good, very good or excellent during the years 2008 – 2010.
All of this comprises a success story for medical science and our socioeconomic development. But there is no question that our longevity “laurels” come with a price, one that has to be addressed as we get to that 20% of the population. Many older Americans have developed extremely deleterious behaviors and health risks. The report states that death rates from chronic lower respiratory disease increased by 57% between 1981 and 2009 in the USA (the end result of smoking). The prevalence of obesity has risen significantly. And adding insult to injury, older Americans who are in the poor or the near poor category continued to spend a high proportion of their income on health care services through 2009. (Health care reform should improve on this.)
Many clinical research studies under-represent older people. A study published in “The Journal of General Internal Medicine” in 2011 pointed out that out of 109 clinical trials published in high profile journals in 2007, about 20% excluded older patients. And these are the individuals who account for the major share of health-care and expenditures
So why am I relating all of this? I, as well as all those who are Jewish, will observe Yom Kippur this week. It’s a day in which we atone for our sins, and request a blessing to be written in the “Book of Life” in the year to come. In order for this to happen, medical science and social programs need to consider the health and well-being of all of us as we get older. The World Health Program definition of what aging should be summarizes my Yom Kippur wish: that it become “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people age”.