The next few decades will see an explosion in the percentage of Americans older than 65, but the economic and social consequences of this baby boomer sunset may be gentler than had been feared because of a significant drop in the percentage of older people with disabilities, a new federal study says.
Released Thursday, the U.S. Census Bureau's 243-page report on the aging population -- among the largest and most comprehensive on the subject that the bureau has ever compiled -- showed today's older Americans are markedly different from previous generations. They are more prosperous, better educated and healthier, and those differences will only accelerate as the first boomers hit retirement age in 2011.
"Older Americans, when compared to older Americans even 20 years ago, are showing substantially less disability, and that benefit applies to men and to women," said Richard J. Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, on whose behalf the study was conducted. "All of this speaks to an improved quality of life."
What this suggests, Hodes said, is that although many of these older Americans eventually will become disabled, it will happen later, with more of the years beyond 65 free of disability -- an increase in what scientists call health expectancy.
And though, as boomers age, the growing ranks of the infirm will become a substantial drain on government coffers and devour health care resources, the total effect may not be as devastating as once feared, Hodes said.
Indeed, the study showed that the percentage of those older than 65 with a disability the report described as "a substantial limitation in a major life activity" fell from 26.2 percent in 1982 to 19.7 percent in 1999, and there were signs the trend would continue.
Richard Suzman, head of the Behavioral and Social Research Program for the National Institute on Aging, said there was disagreement among those analyzing the results about why this drop occurred. But they assumed, he said, that it was due at least in part to today's older Americans being better educated and more prosperous than previous generations.
"People today have a better health expectancy than did their predecessors," Suzman said. "Education, in particular, is a particularly powerful factor in both life expectancy and health expectancy, though truthfully, we're not quite sure why."
Although the results gave the researchers optimism, Hodes cautioned that the growing obesity rate may neutralize the trend.
The new study, "65+ in the United States: 2005," involved no fresh research but was an effort to draw together all of the relevant information on America's aging population from nearly a dozen federal agencies.
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