State, Region Rank Low in Senior Health

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May 29, 2013

Georgia is ranked 43rd in a first-of-its-kind state ranking of seniors’ health status.

Overall, Southern states scored low in the report from the nonprofit United Health Foundation. Tennessee came in 41st, Alabama 44th, Kentucky 45th, Arkansas 46th, Louisiana 48th and Mississippi 50th.

The report focuses on 34 measures of senior health, including physical inactivity, obesity, self-reported health status, poverty, drug coverage, hospital readmission rates and flu vaccinations.

Georgia scored well on measures such as low prevalence of chronic drinking and a high rate of hospice care. But it did poorly on smoking rates, food insecurity and mental health.

The report also noted the state has a high percentage of seniors living in poverty: 11.2 percent of adults 65 and older. And 350,000 seniors here are physically inactive.

The United Health Foundation report notes that 1 in 8 Americans are over the age of 65, and by the year 2050, this age group is projected to more than double in size, from 40.3 million to 88.5 million.

The rising numbers of older adults combined with increasing rates of obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases “are on track to overwhelm our health care system,” the report said. People 65 and older spend nearly twice as much on health care each year as do those aged 45 to 64, the report added.

Southern states typically wind up at the bottom of such health-related rankings.

Many of these states have high populations of older adults, and have seen explosive growth in their number of people 85 and older, said Dr. Toni Miles, director of the University of Georgia’s Institute of Gerontology in the College of Public Health. She was asked to comment on the report by GHN.

Miles added that many seniors have migrated to the South from other regions, drawn by a better climate and a chance to be near family members. That means seniors who might otherwise be experiencing health problems in their states of origin are now experiencing them here.

But health status in the South is also tied to the region’s legacy of poverty and people not having high-paying jobs, she said.

“It’s a slow slog to change these metrics,’’ Miles said. “The state needs to encourage, in a formal way, its seniors to eat better and be more active. You don’t have to belong to a gym to get a good workout – you can walk.’’

Miles added that on the positive side, Georgians “have an interest and emphasis in education that will help them in the long run.’’

Overall, Minnesota tops the list in senior health, followed by Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Iowa. Southern states scoring in the midrange include Virginia, at 21; North Carolina, 29; Florida, 30; and South Carolina, 36.

The report uses data drawn from more than a dozen government agencies and organizations such as the Dartmouth Atlas Project and the Commonwealth Fund.

“I think it will be a useful tool for states to examine their preparedness and progress in providing needed services to our growing older population,” James Firman, president of the National Council on Aging, told Kaiser Health News.

Jennie Chin Hansen, CEO of the American Geriatrics Society, told USA Today that the report offers “an important set of messages for personal focus, family and community focus, and a heads-up to the providers, and a real heads-up to policymakers.”