Aging America: A Look at Senior Health + Changes in Healthcare

As the American population steadily ages, the healthcare industry will need to ensure it can accommodate and support an older general population.

It's also important to understand why the American population is growing older, as well as the issues facing seniors and how they can be best supported by the healthcare industry. Whether you're an older adult wanting to learn how to advocate for yourself, a caretaker looking to understand what your older patient needs, or a younger family member seeking the best way to care for their loved one, read on for what to know about "aging America."

If you're a caretaker, don't forget to read through our infographic on how to best care for an aging nation.

The U.S. Population Is Aging

On average, the population of the United States is growing older. In fact, the number of Americans aged 60 and older is expected to more than double[1] in the next 40 years, reaching a total of 80 million by the year 2040.

The number of Americans aged 85 and older (on average, the age group most in need of basic personal care) is expected to quadruple between the years 2000 to 2040[1], meaning the number of people who will need personal care and caregiving resources in the next 20 years will skyrocket. Though the exact reason behind this staggering growth of older Americans is still being studied, researchers believe that a few factors are contributing to this spike.

number-of-older-americans

Declining Birth Rates

In 2020 alone, the average birth rate in the United States dropped by four percent[2]. In 2019, the rate was even lower — with an average of 58.3 births per every 1,000 women[3] between the ages of 15 to 44. This was down from 59.1 in 2018, showcasing five consecutive years[4] in which fertility rates in the U.S. declined.

Several other impacts seen primarily on women of child-bearing age are all leading to a decline in the overall birth rate in the U.S. A few of these other factors include:

  • Delays in marriage and increased age when married[5]
  • Effects of the Great Recession of 2008–2009, which also saw the fertility rate drop[6]
  • Increased educational attainment[7] and status

Demographic Shifts

The Baby Boomer generation, typically defined as any American adult born between the years of 1946 and 1964, are all aging rapidly. The oldest wave of Baby Boomers reached age 65 in 2011, and the over-65 age group has grown by over one-third[8] since 2010 — due in large part to Baby Boomers reaching ages 65 and older.

The large number of steadily aging Baby Boomers, along with the decline in birth rates, have all led to an older American population. Over half[8] of the states in the U.S. had a median age above 38.5, including all nine states in the Northeast. This rapidly aging population is second only to Millennials (born 1981–1996) in terms of population size, with Millennials overtaking Boomers as the largest generation in 2019.

Healthcare Advancements

Healthcare has come a long way in the past 10, 20, and 30 years. From at-home telehealth visits with your doctor to the ability to order an at-home lab test, healthcare is rapidly expanding to meet the needs and challenges that an older population poses.

Average life expectancy for this group has increased in past years and is expected to increase by around six years by 2060[14].

Though they can vary based on ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and other factors, life expectancies are estimated to be as follows based on data from the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics[9].

  • People who live to age 65 can generally expect to live an average of 19.5 more years (18.1 years for men, 20.7 years for women)
  • From 2006 to 2018, life expectancy for men aged 65+ increased from 17.2 years longer to 18.1
  • During that same period, life expectancy for women aged 65+ increased from 19.9 years longer to 20.7
  • From 2006 to 2018, life expectancy for men aged 85+ increased from 5.6 years longer to 6.0
  • That same period saw life expectancy for women aged 85+ increase from 6.7 years longer to 7.0

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How Healthcare Is Changing and Needs to Change

With the population aging quickly, it's clear that healthcare resources need to change to catch up with the rising demands of an older population. From more accessibility to reinvigorated approaches to care, here are some ways healthcare has already changed for the better — along with some ways it can continue to evolve.

1. Rise in At-Home Health Options

Due to the coronavirus pandemic beginning in 2020, the need for at-home healthcare options quickly became apparent, especially for older adults who may be at higher risk for contracting an illness. Healthcare options rose to the challenge, with many providers offering telehealth appointments, digital and at-home lab testing options, and other forms of digital healthcare to keep patients safe.

These options haven't disappeared as the pandemic has lessened in severity, with many healthcare providers permanently keeping their online and at-home healthcare options in place for all patients.

If you want to take control of your health from the safety and security of your home, look into at-home lab testing options, like a thyroid test or FIT colon cancer screening (note that older men and women should talk to their health care providers to determine whether or not screening for colorectal cancer is appropriate after age 76).

2. Increased Access to Palliative and End-of-Life Care

In 2015, 67 percent of hospitals with 50+ beds were likely to have a palliative end-of-life care program. This is an interdisciplinary medical approach for people with serious illnesses that focuses on optimizing quality of life while reducing suffering and discomfort. In 2019, the number of large hospitals with a palliative care program increased to 72 percent[10].

These hospitals care for 87 percent of all hospitalized patients nationwide, meaning that more patients and older adults suffering from serious illnesses have increased access to end-of-life care that prioritizes their comfort and their quality of life.

Though steps have been taken to improve the access and affordability of end-of-life or palliative care, several more steps can be taken to ensure this is available to all older patients who may need it.

3. More Accessibility Needed

Accessibility goes beyond wheelchair ramps and larger text. While some improvements have been made in the past decade for more accessibility, there are more changes required to reflect the needs of an aging population, both in healthcare and in everyday life.

Though not a comprehensive list, some of these accessibility changes could include:

  • Web accessibility: Easier-to-read fonts, talk-to-text and text-to-talk features, lowered brightness on screens
  • Home accessibility: Doors and windows that can be opened while sitting down, non-slip floors, easy-to-reach light switches
  • Other accessibility: Automated doors and windows, taller door frames, wheelchair ramps

4. More Support Required for Care Staff

As the population ages, more long-term care staff (such as nurses, nursing home employees, hospice workers, and in-home caretakers) will need more support, both from their employers and from their loved ones. Caretakers here are defined as both family caregivers (those who care for a loved one without financial compensation) and paid in-home caretakers who care for a patient.

In a survey conducted by AARP[11], half of family caregivers reported feeling stressed (51 percent) or worried (51 percent), with others feeling worried or concerned (40 percent). Caretakers, including in-home caregiving staff and nursing home workers, have a history of being paid poorly[12] with little to no external benefits or support.

A caretaker that is well-taken care of, with proper training and adequate resources, will be a much better resource for older adults than one who is paid poorly with no outside training. In order to ensure these generations are well taken care of, one big area healthcare should address is the amount of support received by caretakers — especially considering 44 percent[13] of older adults say a serious diagnosis will require them to need more help.

How Older Adults Can Care for Themselves

Whether or not you opt in to receive assistive healthcare during your golden years, there are still a number of ways you can prioritize your own health and wellness. Learn more about how to care for yourself and prioritize your health.

Know Your Family History

Your family tree isn't just a way to learn about who your great-great-grandparents were or what monarch you may share a bloodline with. Your family health history, even if incomplete, can help you and your healthcare provider decide which screening tests you need and when those tests should start.

Screening tests, such as hemoglobin A1c testing, mammograms, and colorectal cancer screening, help find early signs of disease and can lead to better health and health outcomes in the long run.

Plan Ahead

Planning ahead is always a good idea, especially when it comes to taking care of yourself and your health. There are a number of ways you can plan ahead when it comes to your care and health, especially once you decide whether you'd prefer to age in your home or at an assisted care facility.

Below are a few questions you can ask to plan ahead to take control of your health and wellbeing as you age:

  • What will I need to age at home? (This includes assistive technology and other adaptations your home may need, such as wheelchair access and bathing assistance.)
  • Is family close by to help me if needed?
  • Will I have a caretaker?
  • Do I have a will?
  • Do I have a plan for my estate and belongings?

Planning ahead can help you make sure that your wishes are taken into account as you age, and ensures that your health and wellness decisions are made with your wishes and best interests in mind.

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Take Notes

As you age, it can be overwhelming to keep track of your medical appointments, diagnoses, and medications. When going to an appointment with a healthcare provider, you should try to take note of their recommendations, prescriptions, and diagnoses, along with the date and name of the medical professional.

This will not only be helpful down the line as you shift your care decisions to a caregiver or loved one, but it will also ensure you and your family members are on the same page when it comes to your diagnoses, medications, and routine appointment schedule.

Prioritize Self-Care

Self-care is important no matter your age. This can extend beyond what is traditionally considered self-care, such as bubble baths or doing yoga. Anything you do that is especially for you and for prioritizing your wellbeing can be considered self-care. Try to implement one or two self-care routines into your day, no matter how small — these are important for taking time for your health and wellness.

If you struggle with putting yourself first, here are some self-care ideas to get you started.

  • Cook a healthy meal
  • Read 20 pages of a book each night
  • Drink enough water — recommended intakes are 15.5 cups per day for men, 11.5 cups per day for women
  • Call a family member or friend
  • Create and follow a morning and evening routine

Though many parts of the healthcare system are constantly changing and evolving, one thing is for certain: caring for the aging population is an important task. Through proper education, testing, accessibility, and care methods, these generations can be cared for (whether by caretakers or loved ones) for years to come.

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Article Sources:

  1. Urban Institute. “Program on Retirement Policy.” Urban Institute, 2021, https://www.urban.org/policy-centers/cross-center-initiatives/program-retirement-policy/projects/data-warehouse/what-future-holds/us-population-aging. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  2. Hamilton, Brady E., et al. “Births: Provisional Data for 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsrr/vsrr012-508.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  3. Martin, Joyce A., et al. “Births: Final Data for 2019.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 March 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr70/nvsr70-02-508.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  4. Barroso, Amanda. “With a potential ‘baby bust’ on the horizon, key facts about fertility in the U.S. before the pandemic.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 7 May 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/05/07/with-a-potential-baby-bust-on-the-horizon-key-facts-about-fertility-in-the-u-s-before-the-pandemic/. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  5. United States Census Bureau. “Median age at first marriage: 1890 to present.” U.S. Census Bureau, 2021, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/visualizations/time-series/demo/families-and-households/ms-2.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  6. Livingstone, Gretchen. “In a Down Economy, Fewer Births.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 12 October 2011, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2011/10/12/in-a-down-economy-fewer-births/. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  7. Pew Research Center. “On Pay Gap, Millennial Women Near Parity – For Now.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 11 December 2013, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2013/12/11/chapter-1-trends-from-government-data/. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  8. United States Census Bureau. 65 and Older Population Grows Rapidly as Baby Boomers Age. Press Release. 25 June 2020. United States Census Bureau, United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/65-older-population-grows.html. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  9. Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics. “2020 Older Americans: Key Indicators of Well-Being.” Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics, Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics, 2020, https://agingstats.gov/docs/LatestReport/OA20_508_10142020.pdf. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  10. Parker, Jim. “Access to Hospital Palliative Care Growing in United States.” Hospice News, 26 September 2019, https://hospicenews.com/2019/09/26/access-to-hospital-palliative-care-growing-in-united-states/. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  11. Skufca, Laura. “AARP Family Caregiving Survey.” AARP, November 2017, https://www.aarp.org/research/topics/care/info-2017/family-caregiving-changing-roles.html. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  12. Fulmer, Terry, and Christopher F. Koller. “A Nursing Home Alternative.” The John A. Hartford Foundation, 14 July 2020, https://www.johnahartford.org/blog/view/a-nursing-home-alternative. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  13. DiJulio, Bianca, et al. “Serious Illness in Late Life: The Public's Views and Experiences.” Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, November 2017, https://files.kff.org/attachment/Report-Serious-Illness-in-Late-Life-The-Publics-Views-and-Experiences. Accessed 6 July 2021.
  14. Medina, Lauren, et al. “Living Longer: Historical and Projected Life Expectancy in the United States, 1960 to 2060.” United States Census Bureau, February 2020, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2020/demo/p25-1145.pdf. Accessed 19 July 2021.

Infographic Sources:

  1. Cleveland Clinic. “Caregiver Burnout.” Cleveland Clinic, 2019, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9225-caregiver-burnout. Accessed 19 July 2021.
  2. Family Caregiver Alliance. “Taking Care of YOU: Self-Care for Family Caregivers.” Family Caregiver Alliance, 2013, https://www.caregiver.org/resource/taking-care-you-self-care-family-caregivers/. Accessed 19 July 2021.
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