- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Getting older is getting better, according to a report released yesterday by the National Institute on Aging. Chronic disability among senior Americans has “dropped dramatically” while health and daily function have improved — good news for millions of baby boomers as they fret over advancing years.

The percentage of people older than 65 coping with the effects of heart disease, arthritis, hypertension and other chronic health conditions dropped from 27 percent in 1982 to 19 percent last year, the study found.

During the same period, the number of seniors in nursing homes or long-care institutions “dropped dramatically” from 8 percent to 4 percent while the percentage of the older population considered “non-disabled” rose from 73 percent to 81 percent.

The combination is financially fortuitous: Average Medicare payments fell in almost all health categories. In the next three years, the projected savings in Medicare payments will be about $73 billion if similar healthy trends continue, the study found.

“This continuing decline in disability among older people is one of the most encouraging and important trends of the aging population,” NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes said yesterday.

The findings were based on an analysis of the National Long-Term Care Survey, a periodic federal study of about 20,000 people enrolled in Medicare.

Although the initial news is good, NIA is adapting some simple but strategic new footing to counter the reality of a burgeoning senior population: There will be 72 million people older than 65 by the year 2030, or one out of every five Americans.

“The challenge now is to see how this trend can be maintained and accelerated, especially in the face of increasing obesity. Doing so over the next several decades will significantly lessen the societal impact of the aging baby boom generation,” said Richard Sulzman, director of NIA’s Behavioral Research Program.

It’s a heavy concern: 65 percent of the adult population is considered overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The NIA continues to track the demographics, and its findings are followed closely by marketing groups and researchers seeking insight on active mature people. An NIA analysis released earlier this year found that in the past four decades, the proportion of people 65 and older who lived below the poverty line decreased from 35 percent to 10 percent. By 2020, people 55 and older are expected to make up more than 20 percent of the labor force.

California, Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey continue to be age-heavy states, each with more than 1 million residents 65 and older.

The NIA also estimates that by 2030, 72 percent of older Americans will be non-Hispanic white, 11 percent Hispanic, 10 percent black and 5 percent Asian.

Among the findings that surely will resonate with future political advisers: “Older people consistently vote in higher proportions than other age groups.” In the 2004 presidential election, the voter turnout rate among the 55-to-74 set was 72 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

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