Dramatic changes in US aging highlighted in new census, NIH report

Impact of baby boomers anticipated

The face of aging in the United States is changing dramatically -- and rapidly, according to a new U.S. Census Bureau report, commissioned by the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Today's older Americans are very different from their predecessors, living longer, having lower rates of disability, achieving higher levels of education and less often living in poverty. And the baby boomers, the first of whom celebrated their 60th birthdays in 2006, promise to redefine further what it means to grow older in America.

The report, 65+ in the United States: 2005, was prepared for NIA, a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to provide a picture of the health and socioeconomic status of the aging population at a critical time in the maturing of the United States. It highlights striking shifts in aging on a population scale and also describes changes at the local and even family level, examining, for example, important changes in family structure as a result of divorce.

"The collection, analysis, and reporting of reliable data are critical to informing policy as the nation moves ahead to address the challenges and opportunities of an aging population," says NIA Director Richard J. Hodes, M.D. "This report tells us that we have made a lot of progress in improving the health and well-being of older Americans, but there is much left to do."

Among the trends:

The United States population aged 65 and over is expected to double in size within the next 25 years. By 2030, almost 1 out of every 5 Americans -- some 72 million people -- will be 65 years or older. The age group 85 and older is now the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population.

The health of older Americans is improving. Still, many are disabled and suffer from chronic conditions. The proportion with a disability fell significantly from 26.2 percent in 1982 to 19.7 percent in 1999. But 14 million people age 65 and older reported some level of disability in Census 2000, mostly linked to a high prevalence of chronic conditions such as heart disease or arthritis.

The financial circumstances of older people have improved dramatically, although there are wide variations in income and wealth. The proportion of people aged 65 and older in poverty decreased from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent in 2003, mostly attributed to the support of Social Security. In 2000, the poorest fifth of senior households had a net worth of $3,500 ($44,346 including home equity) and the wealthiest had $328,432 ($449,800 including home equity).

Geographically, Florida (17.6 percent), Pennsylvania (15.6 percent) and West Virginia (15.3 percent) are the "oldest" states, with the highest percentages of people aged 65 and older. Charlotte County, Fla. (34.7 percent) gets top honors among counties, and McIntosh County, N.D. (34.2 percent) ranks second.

Higher levels of education, which are linked to better health, higher income, more wealth and a higher standard of living in retirement, will continue to increase among people 65 and older. The proportion of Americans with at least a bachelor's degree grew five-fold from 1950 to 2003, from 3.4 percent to 17.4 percent, and by 2030, more than one-fourth of the older population is expected to have an undergraduate degree. The percentage completing high school quadrupled between 1950 and 2003, from 17.0 percent to 71.5 percent.

As the United States as a whole grows more diverse, so does the population aged 65 and older. In 2003, older Americans were 83 percent non-Hispanic White, 8 percent Black, 6 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. By 2030, an estimated 72 percent of older Americans will be non-Hispanic White, 11 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Black and 5 percent Asian.

Changes in the American family have significant implications for future aging. Divorce, for example, is on the rise, and some researchers suggest that fewer children and more stepchildren may change the availability of family support in the future for people at older ages. In 1960, only 1.6 percent of older men and 1.5 percent of women aged 65 and older were divorced. But by 2003, 7 percent of older men and 8.6 percent of older women were divorced and had not remarried. The trend may be continuing. In 2003, among people in their early 60s, 12.2 percent of men and 15.9 percent of women were divorced.

"The social and economic implications of an aging population--and of the baby boom in particular--are likely to be profound for both individuals and society," says Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon. "The 65+ in the United States report helps us to understand these dramatic changes so we can examine how they may impact families and society."

The 65+ report is a project of the NIA's Behavioral and Social Research Program, which supports the collection and analyses of data in several national and international studies on health, retirement, and aging. The program's director, Richard M. Suzman, Ph.D., suggests that, with five years to go before the baby boom turns 65, "Many people have an image of aging that may be 20 years out of date. The very current portrait presented here shows how much has changed and where trends may be headed in the future."

65+ lead author, Victoria A. Velkoff, Ph.D., chief of the Aging Studies Branch at the U.S. Census Bureau, noted the variations among today's older adults and those of the future. "People 65 and over are a very diverse group. How they experience aging depends on a variety of interacting factors--from gender and race/ethnicity to health, education, socioeconomic and family circumstances. 65+ in the United States: 2005 depicts this heterogeneity, which will further expand as this population doubles in size over the next 25 years."

The report was prepared by Dr. Velkoff and co-authors Wan He, Ph.D., Manisha Sengupta, Ph.D., and Kimberly A. DeBarros of the Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau.

The 243-page compendium examines in detail five key areas: growth of the older population (changes in age and racial/ethnic composition), longevity and health (life expectancy and causes of death), economic characteristics (income and household wealth), geographic distribution (by population and race) and social and other characteristics (marital status, living arrangements and voting patterns).

The report covers a wide range of topics and timelines, pulling together data from Census 2000 and previous censuses, nationally representative surveys and recent population projections. In addition to the data compiled by other federal agencies, including the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the report also includes statistics from the Current Population Survey; American Housing Survey; National Health Interview Survey; National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey; Survey of Income and Program Participation; and the Health and Retirement Study.

The public can view and also download the report at http://www.census.gov.


The Census Bureau serves as the leading source of quality data about the nation's people and economy. For more information, visit the Census Bureau website at www.census.gov.

The NIA is the lead federal agency conducting and supporting basic, biomedical and behavioral and social research on aging and the special needs and problems of older people. For more information, visit the NIA website at www.nia.nih.gov or call toll free 1-800-222-2225.

Media contacts:

National Institute on Aging: Susan Farrer or Linda Joy, (301) 496-1752, e-mail: [email protected]

Census Bureau: Mike Bergman, (301) 763-3030, (301) 457-1037 (TDD), e-mail: [email protected]


The older U.S. population is growing rapidly as baby boomers age, and more people are living longer:

The first baby boomers will turn 65 in 2011, and people aged 65 and over are projected to represent 20 percent of the total U.S. population in 2030 compared with 12 percent in 2003.

Average life expectancy at birth in 2000 was 76.9 years; females could expect to live an average of 5.4 years longer than men.

About 80 percent of centenarians are women.

The United States is relatively young compared with other developed countries. Despite its aging, the United States has a lower proportion of adults aged 65 and older than that of most countries in Western Europe. In general, older people in the United States are healthier than in the past, with lower rates of disability. Still, a significant proportion suffers from health problems and chronic disease, and causes of death have not changed dramatically:

Death rates for heart disease are declining among people 65 years and over; in general, heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death within this population, with death rates varying by age, sex, and race.

About 80 percent of seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and 50 percent have at least two chronic health conditions, which often lead to disability. Arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and respiratory disorders are some of the leading causes of activity limitations among older people.

The rates of disability and functional limitation among the older population have declined substantially over the past two decades; about one in five older Americans report having chronic disability.

Data comparing people aged 65 to 74 in 1988-94 and 1999-2000 show a startling rise in the percentage of people considered obese -- in men, the proportion grew from about 24 to 33 percent and in women from about 27 percent to 39 percent. The older population is growing more in some geographic regions than in others, and is concentrated in metropolitan areas:

Between 1990 and 2000, the largest proportionate increases in the older population were mainly in the West, particularly in the Mountain States, and in the South, particularly in the South Atlantic states.

In 2000, nine states--California, Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey--had more than 1 million residents aged 65 and over.

The 10 counties with the highest percentage of people age 65 and over in 2000 were:
Charlotte, Fla. (34.7%)
McIntosh, N.D. (34.2%)
Highlands, Fla. (33.0%)
Citrus, Fla. (32.2%)
Kalawao, Hawaii (32.0%)
Sarasota, Fla. (31.5%)
Hernando, Fla. (30.9%)
Llano, Texas (30.7%)
McPherson, S.D. (29.6%)
Divide, N.D. (29.5%)

In 2000, almost three-fourths of Hispanics aged 65 and up lived in California, Texas, Florida and New York, and nearly two-thirds of older Asians lived in the West.

Three out of four older people lived in metropolitan areas in 2000.

There is a strong correlation between education and health. Older adults are increasingly more educated, and this continuing trend could have a positive effect on the health of older people in the future:

By 2030, more than one-fourth of the older population is expected to have at least a bachelor's degree, and the percentage of older women with a bachelor's degree will likely double, from 13.4 percent in 2003 to 27.8 percent in 2030.

Substantial educational differences by race and Hispanic origin exist, despite the overall rise in educational attainment within the older population. In 2003, 76 percent of older non-Hispanic whites, 70 percent of older Asians, 52 percent of older Blacks, and 36 percent of older Hispanics had completed high school.

The gender gap in completion of a college education will narrow in the future because men and women in younger cohorts are earning college degrees at roughly the same rate. Older adults in the United States are far less likely to live in poverty today than in decades past, although poverty rates vary by group:

Between 1959 and 2003, the proportion of people aged 65 and over who lived below the poverty line decreased from 35 percent to 10 percent.

In 2003, older women were more likely than older men to be living in poverty (13 percent compared with 7 percent).

Older non-Hispanic whites (8 percent) were less likely than older Blacks (24 percent) and older Hispanics (20 percent) to be living in poverty in 2003. People aged 65 and older are less likely to be in the labor force today than in decades past, but many continue to work:

Labor force participation rates of men aged 65 and older fell dramatically over the past several decades, from 46 percent in 1950 to 19 percent in 2003. Rates for older women did not change statistically during that time period.

By 2020, people aged 55 and over are expected to make up 20.3 percent of the labor force, up from 15.1 percent in 2003.

As employed men and women get older, their likelihood of working part-time increases. In 2003, about half of employed men aged 70 and over and almost two-thirds of employed women aged 70 and over worked part-time.

Social Security continues to provide the largest share of income for many older Americans. The social characteristics of older people vary greatly, often by age within the post-65 group:

Three-quarters of the 10.5 million older Americans living alone in 2003 were women. The proportion varies greatly by age, with 29.6 percent aged 65 to 74, 47.6 percent aged 75 to 84, and 57 percent aged 85 and older living alone.

In 2000, 4.5 percent of people aged 75 to 84 and 18.2 percent of those 85 and older lived in nursing homes. About three in four older nursing home residents are women.

The majority of men aged 65 to 84 were veterans, reflecting the high proportion of men who served in the military during World War II.

People aged 65 and older consistently vote in higher proportions than other age groups. In 2000, 67.6 percent of the older population, compared with 49.8 percent of those aged 25 to 44, said they voted; of all the votes cast that year, some 20 percent were by people age 65 and older.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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