AARP study examines quality of life for 50+

Sunday, May 22, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Against the backdrop of a shifting economy, a new study by AARP examining the health and welfare of America's 50+ population shows an increased reliance on Social Security among other significant factors.

AARP's second annual quality of life index, The State of 50+ America 2005, examines the well-being of Americans ages 50 and older by analyzing 25 key indicators and tracking over time measurements on economic and health status, consumption/social/lifestyle, and independent living/long-term care.

Among the key indicators, the report looks at health care costs, coverage, access and quality. Its special health section focuses attention on the challenges facing the U.S. health care system, especially the need to restrain the growth in health care spending while getting the most value for that spending.

In particular, medical bills over the previous year were considered a problem for one in five older Americans. These bills were twice as likely to be a financial problem for individuals whose debt had increased from the previous year and more of a problem for people age 65+. While people age 65 and older have the benefit of access to Medicare coverage, the premiums for Part B Medicare have been rising at double digit rates for the past several years.

AARP Director of Policy and Strategy John Rother explained, "Income stagnation may also explain the fact that one-third of those aged 50 to 64 express concerns about their ability to pay for future health expenses."

The report finds the "youngest" (50-64) age group's fortunes improved over the past decade on 10 indicators and declined on five. Overall, the "middle" (65 to 74) and "oldest" (75+) age groups did better-each improved on 12 and declined on only three indicators. However, progress, where it existed, was often slow or uneven. For example, although incomes grew in the past decade and in the past year, incomes in 2003 were actually lower for people aged 50 to 64 than they were in 1998 and lower than in 1997 for people aged 75 and older. Real growth in Social Security benefits coupled with real declines in total income mean that people aged 62 and older were even more dependent on Social Security for their retirement income than they were a decade ago, underscoring the need to strengthen Social Security's guaranteed benefit, and not subject beneficiaries to any increased risk.

Over the most recent year, the total 50+ population improved on 12 indicators and declined on six-three each in the economic and health areas. This is a turnaround from last year's edition which reported deterioration in all but two important economic and health indicators among the total 50+ population. In the most recent year, the "youngest" group experienced more losses than gains, and the two older subgroups showed roughly equal gains and losses. According to the report, despite only 15 percent (a smaller percentage than last year's 19 percent) saying they were better off economically than a year before, the percent who feel confident about their retirement future shot up by nine percentage points, and the extent of confidence increased with age.

Rother continued, "while we see some marginal economic improvements, many still lag behind--half still have no pension and one-third of those aged 65 to 74 and nearly half of those 75+ are below twice the poverty line. Health vulnerability is not improving. Fewer than half report 'very good' or 'excellent' health status; 13 percent of those 50-64 are without health insurance; 43 percent of 65+ lack stable drug coverage, and only a quarter are physically active."

Several new health indicators were added this year. A new mental health measure in this year's report improved for all segments of the population. Another new indicator suggests an unhealthy trend toward obesity in the older population and a looming health problem. In the area of independent living/long-term care, the percent having no functional limitations increased modestly which is consistent with other findings of declining disability rates. And in the area of consumption and lifestyle trends, not surprisingly, Americans age 50 and older are increasingly active online, as over half now use the Internet.

"If current trends continue many in the 50+ population can expect steady improvements in the quality of their lives and bright prospects for the future. However, uncertainty remains because of the greater responsibility people are required to take for their own retirement," Rother said. "The decline in traditional pensions, reductions in retiree health benefits, weakness in personal income and job growth, uncertainty in the stock market, and threats to the Social Security system posed by proposals to partially privatize the system, all pose challenges to the 50+ population."