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Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well-Being is one in a series of periodic reports to the Nation on the condition of older adults in the United States. In this report, 37 indicators depict the well-being of older Americans in the areas of demographic characteristics, economic circumstances, health status, health risks and behaviors, and cost and use of health care services. This year’s report also includes a special feature on the end of life. Selected highlights from each section of the report follow.


The demographics of aging continue to change dramatically. The older population is growing rapidly, and the aging of the “Baby Boomers” born between 1946 and 1964 (and who began turning age 65 in 2011), are accelerating this growth. This large population of older Americans will be more racially diverse and better educated than previous generations. Another significant trend is the increase in the proportion of men age 85 and over who are veterans.

  • In 2010, there were 40 million people age 65 and over in the United States, accounting for 13 percent of the total population. The older population in 2030 is projected to be twice as large as in 2000, growing from 35 million to 72 million and representing nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population (See “Indicator 1: Number of Older Americans”).
  • In 1965, 24 percent of the older population had graduated from high school, and only 5 percent had at least a Bachelor’s degree. By 2010, 80 percent were high school graduates or more, and 23 percent had a Bachelor’s degree or more (See “Indicator 4: Educational Attainment”).


There have been decreases in the proportion of older people living in poverty or in the low-income group just above the poverty line, both in recent years and over the longer term. Among older Americans, the share of income coming from earnings has increased since the mid-1980s, partly because more people, especially women, continue to work past age 55. In addition, net worth increased almost 80 percent, on average, for older Americans between 1988 and 2007. Although most older Americans live in adequate, affordable housing, some live in costly, physically inadequate, or crowded housing. Additionally, major inequalities continue to exist; older blacks and people without high school diplomas report smaller economic gains and fewer financial resources overall.

  • Between 1974 and 2010, there was a decrease in the proportion of older people with income below poverty from 15 percent to 9 percent and with low income from 35 percent to 26 percent; and an increase in the proportion of people with high income from 18 percent to 31 percent (See “Indicator 8: Income”).
  • In 2007, the median net worth of households headed by white people age 65 and over ($248,300) was almost three times that of older black households ($87,800). This difference is less than in 1998 when the median net worth of households headed by older white people was about six times higher than that of households headed by older black people. The large increase in net worth in past years may not continue into the future due to recent declines in housing values (See “Indicator 10: Net Worth”).
  • Over the past four decades, labor force participation rates have risen for women
  • age 55 and over. This trend continued during the recent recession. Among men age 55 and over, the rise in participation rates that started in the mid-1990s also has continued, although to a smaller extent. As “Baby Boomers” approach older ages, they are remaining in the labor force at higher rates than previous generations (See “Indicator 11: Participation in the Labor Force”).
  • In 2009, approximately 40 percent of older American households had housing cost burden (expenditures on housing and utilities that exceed 30 percent of household income). In addition to having cost burden as the most dominant housing problem, crowded housing was also fairly prevalent for some older American households with children in their homes (See “Indicator 13: Housing Problems”).

Health Status

Americans are living longer than ever before, yet their life expectancies lag behind those of other developed nations. Death rates for certain diseases have declined over time, while others have increased. Older age is often accompanied by increased risk of certain diseases and disorders. Large proportions of older Americans report a variety of chronic health conditions such as hypertension and arthritis. Nevertheless, most people age 65 and over report their health as good, very good, or excellent.

  • Life expectancy at age 65 in the United States was lower than that of many other industrialized nations. In 2009, women age 65 in Japan could expect to live on average 3.7 years longer than women in the United States. Among men, the difference was 1.3 years (See “Indicator 14: Life Expectancy”).
  • Death rates for heart disease and stroke declined by slightly more than 50 percent since 1981. Death rates for chronic lower respiratory disease increased by 57 percent in the same time period (See “Indicator 15: Mortality”).
  • The prevalence of certain chronic conditions differed by sex. Women reported higher levels of arthritis than men (56 percent versus 45 percent). Men reported higher levels of heart disease (37 percent versus 26 percent) (See “Indicator 16: Chronic Health Conditions”).
  • During the period 2008–2010, 76 percent of people age 65 and over rated their health as good, very good, or excellent. Non-Hispanic Whites were more likely to report good health than their non-Hispanic Black or Hispanic counterparts (See “Indicator 18: Respondent-Assessed Health Status”).

Health Risks and Behaviors

Social and lifestyle factors can affect the health and well-being of older Americans. These factors include preventive behaviors such as cancer screenings and routine vaccinations along with diet, physical activity, obesity, and cigarette smoking. The quality of the air where people live also affects health. Many of these health risks and behaviors have shown long-term improvements, even though recent estimates indicate no significant changes.

  • In 2010, about 11 percent of people age 65 and over reported participating in leisure-time aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities that met the 2008 Federal physical activity guidelines (See “Indicator 24: Physical Activity”).
  • As with other age groups, the percentage of people age 65 and over who are obese has increased since 1988–1994. In 2009–2010, 38 percent of people age 65 and over were obese, compared with 22 percent in 1988–1994. Over the past several years however, that trend has leveled off for older women, with no statistically significant change in obesity between 1999–2000 and 2009–2010. During this same time period, the obesity prevalence increased for older men (See “Indicator 25: Obesity”).
  • The percentage of people age 65 and over living in counties that experienced poor air quality for any air pollutant decreased from 64 percent in 2000 to 36 percent in 2010 (See “Indicator 27: Air Quality”).
  • The proportion of leisure time that older Americans spent socializing and communicating—such as visiting friends or attending or hosting social events—declined with age. For Americans age 55–64, about 11 percent of leisure time was spent socializing and communicating compared with 8 percent for those age 75 and over (See “Indicator 28: Use of Time”).

Health Care

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s, health care costs rose rapidly for older Americans. However, average health care costs did not increase further between 2006 and 2008, after adjustment for inflation. Older Americans in the poor/near poor income category continued to spend a high proportion of their household income on health care services through 2009. In recent years increasing numbers of Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in HMOs and other health plans under the Medicare Advantage (MA) program.

  • After adjustment for inflation, health care costs increased significantly among older Americans from $9,850 in 1992 to $15,709 in 2008. There was no significant change between 2006 and 2008 (See “Indicator 30: Health Care Expenditures”).
  • From 1977 to 2009, the percentage of household income that people age 65 and over allocated to out-of-pocket spending for health care services increased among those in the poor/near poor income category from 12 percent to 22 percent (See “Indicator 33: Out-of-Pocket Health Care Expenditures”).
  • Enrollment in health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and other health plans under the Medicare Advantage (MA) program has grown rapidly in recent years. In 2005, 16 percent of Medicare beneficiaries age 65 or over were enrolled in an MA plan, compared with 28 percent in 2009 (See “Indicator 32: Sources of Health Insurance”).

End of Life

In the last decade there has been a substantial rise in the use of hospice services among older Americans. During that time, there has also been a smaller increase in the use of intensive care unit (ICU) and coronary care unit (CCU) services at the end of life. The percent of deaths among older Americans that occurred in hospitals declined over the last 20 years, with an increase in the percent dying at home.

  • Use of hospice in the last month of life increased from 19 percent of decedents in 1999, to 43 percent in 2009. Use of ICU/CCU services grew from 22 percent of decedents in 1999, to 27 percent in 2009.
  • Neoplasms accounted for 53 percent of hospice stays in 1999 and only 32 percent in 2009. The next most common primary diagnoses in 2009 were diseases of the circulatory system (19 percent) and symptoms, signs, and ill-defined conditions (17 percent).
  • Among older Americans, 49 percent of deaths occurred in hospitals in 1989, declining to 32 percent in 2009. The percent dying at home increased from 15 in 1989, to 24 percent in 2009.

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Last Modified: 12/31/1600 7:00:00 PM