Older Americans are aging better than ever, especially women

June 23, 2021

ANN ARBOR—Over the past decade, the news has largely been good for older Americans: More people are able to meet their daily care needs without assistance and women seem to be thriving the most.

Findings are from a recently released series of online dashboards and chartbooks that tracks nationwide trends for adults ages 70 and older from 2011 through 2020.

According to the report, over the past 10 years, older adults have experienced improvements in physical functioning, vision and hearing, and, through 2019, lower rates of dementia. As a result, fewer are living in nursing homes and assisted living settings, and fewer of those in the community are receiving help. More are using assistive devices in their daily activities and the percentage going online for activities has also increased dramatically.

“This study suggests the daily lives of older adults are changing and, on balance, trends are encouraging, especially for older women,” said University of Michigan researcher Vicki Freedman, who initiated the project using data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, with funding from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health.

But not everyone has benefited, according to Freedman, a research professor in the Survey Research Center at the Institute for Social Research and director of the Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging.

Women had improvements across the board, whereas men experienced fewer gains. Black Americans and those of Hispanic ethnicity began the decade with a disability disadvantage and continue to lag behind.

“Women have always been more likely than men to experience disability in later life,” said Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researcher Judith Kasper, who co-leads the National Health and Aging Trends Study with Freedman and collaborated on the project. “It’s especially encouraging to see their gains were not cut short by the pandemic.”

Kasper, a professor of health policy and management, noted that although the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the daily lives of older adults in many respects, most findings in 2020 were continuations of trends that began in prior years. However, in 2020. sharp declines in participation in social activities—such as visiting friends and family—were widely experienced.

The researchers also note that concerning gaps remained for older Blacks and Hispanics in 2020. Older people of color were:

  • Less likely to successfully accommodate self-care and mobility limitations with assistive devices
  • More likely to receive assistance with self-care and mobility and with household activities related to their health and functioning
  • More likely to experience unmet needs related to self-care and mobility and household activities
  • More likely to have low physical capacity, poor vision and, in 2019, dementia; Hispanics were more likely to have poor hearing as well
  • Less likely to have bathing-related home modifications; Hispanics were less likely to have toileting-related home modifications
  • Less likely to communicate by email or texting and to go online for social networking, household activities, and health-related activities.

“The findings reported in the dashboards and chartbook demonstrate the importance of collecting representative longitudinal data on disability and function among older Americans,” said John W. R. Phillips, chief of the NIA Population and Social Processes Branch. “While there are some encouraging trends in function for older Americans as a whole, there are also disparities in function that can be addressed with accommodations. This data can inform the public and policymakers on remedies to both maintain positive trends and reduce measured disparities.”

Begun in 2011, The National Health and Aging Trends study fosters research to reduce disability, maximize independent functioning, and enhance quality of life at older ages. The study, funded by the NIA (grant number U01AG032947), gathers annual information on disability and functioning from a national sample of Medicare beneficiaries ages 65 and older.

More:
The National Health and Aging Trends Study
NHATS Trends Dashboards

Contact:
Morgan Sherburne, 734-647-1844, morganls@umich.edu

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