Trends in Aging: Census report suggests profound economic impact

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The face of aging in the United States is changing dramatically and rapidly, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today’s older Americans live longer, have lower rates of disability, achieve higher levels of education and live in poverty less often than their predecessors. And baby boomers, the first of whom celebrate their 60th birthday this year, promise to redefine further what it means to grow older in America, the U.S. Census Bureau says in its report, “65+ in the United States: 2005.”

The social and economic implications of the aging population, and of the baby boomers in particular, are likely to be profound for both individuals and society, Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon says.

The report was commissioned by the National Institute on Aging (NIA, www.nia.nih.gov), a component of the National Institutes of Health. “[It] tells us that we have made a lot of progress in improving the health and well-being of older Americans, but there is much left to do,” says NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D.

Among the trends:
l The U.S. population age 65 and older is expected to double in size within the next 25 years. By 2030, almost one out of five Americans—some 72 million people—will be 65 years or older. The age group 85 and older is now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.

l The health of older Americans is improving. Still, many are disabled and suffer from chronic conditions. The proportion with a disability fell significantly from 26.2 percent in 1982 to 19.7 percent in 1999. But 14 million people age 65 and older reported some level of disability in Census 2000, mostly linked to a high prevalence of chronic conditions such as heart disease or arthritis.

l The financial circumstances of older people have improved dramatically, although there are wide variations in income and wealth. The proportion of people aged 65 and older in poverty decreased from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent in 2003, mostly attributed to the support of Social Security. In 2000, the poorest fifth of senior households had a net worth of $3,500 ($44,346 including home equity) and the wealthiest had $328,432 ($449,800 including home equity).

l Florida (17.6 percent), Pennsylvania (15.6 percent) and West Virginia (15.3 percent) are the “oldest” states, with the highest percentages of people age 65 and older.

l Higher levels of education, which are linked to better health, higher income, more wealth and a higher standard of living in retirement, will continue to increase among people 65 and older. The proportion of Americans with at least a bachelor’s degree grew fivefold from 1950 to 2003, from 3.4 percent to 17.4 percent; and by 2030, more than one-fourth of the older population is expected to have an undergraduate degree. The percentage completing high school quadrupled from 1950 to 2003, from 17 percent to 71.5 percent.

l As the United States as a whole grows more diverse, so does the population age 65 and older. In 2003, older Americans were 83 percent non-Hispanic white, 8 percent Black, 6 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. By 2030, an estimated 72 percent of older Americans will be non-Hispanic white, 11 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Black and 5 percent Asian.

l Changes in the American family have significant implications for future aging. Divorce, for example, is on the rise, and some researchers suggest that fewer children and more stepchildren may change the availability of family support in the future for people at older ages. In 1960, only 1.6 percent of older men and 1.5 percent of women age 65 and older were divorced, but by 2003, 7 percent of older men and 8.6 percent of older women were divorced and had not remarried. The trend may be continuing. In 2003, among people in their early 60s, 12.2 percent of men and 15.9 percent of women were divorced.