10 Findings of the 2012 Older Americans Survey

Tom Sightings
September 4, 2012

The Federal Interagency Forum, a group of U.S. government agencies, bureaus, and departments, periodically produces a report on the state of older adults in America. The most recent survey, called Older Americans 2012: Key Indicators of Well Being, was released in August, relying on data collected over the past few years.

The report focuses on 37 indicators that include demographics, economics, health, and end-of-life issues. Here are ten highlights:

1. The older population is growing rapidly. In 2010, there were 40 million people over age 65 in the United States. They accounted for 13 percent of the population. The number of older people has doubled since the 1960s, and due to the aging of the baby boomers will continue to increase dramatically over the next 20 years. By 2030, the over-65 crowd will balloon to 72 million people, comprising 20 percent of the population.

2. Today's seniors are better educated. In 1965, only 24 percent of the older population had graduated from high school. A mere 5 percent had a college degree. Today, 80 percent of seniors have a high-school diploma, and 23 percent boast a bachelor's degree or better.

3. The older population is more diverse. According to the survey, the "large population of older Americans is more racially diverse than previous generations." And the economic divide between the races has blurred, at least to some extent. In the 1990s, older white households averaged six times the net worth of black households. Now the gap is half that, at three times.

4. Seniors are richer than ever before. The number of older people living in poverty has steadily decreased. Between 1974 and 2010, the proportion of seniors living below the poverty line went down from 15 percent to 9 percent. Those living near poverty went from 35 to 26 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of older Americans enjoying a "high income" fattened from 18 to 31 percent.

5. Older people are working. Increases in income are due, in part, to more people working, especially women over age 55. Since 1963, the portion of men ages 55 to 61 participating in the labor force sank from 90 percent to 75 percent. But over the same period the participation rate for women rose from 44 to 65 percent. This in part reflects economic conditions. But according to the survey, "As new cohorts of baby boom women approach older ages, they are participating in the labor force at higher rates than previous generations."

6. Older men are married; older women live alone. In 2010, 72 percent of senior men lived with a spouse, while only 42 of women did. Women age 65 and over were three times as likely as men of the same age to be widowed. Older single women of color were more likely to live with a relative who was not a spouse; older white women were more likely to live alone.

7. More people are dying at home. Over the past 20 years, the percent of deaths occurring in hospitals has declined, from 49 percent to 32 percent. More older people use the services of hospices, which increased from 19 percent in 1989 to about 43 percent today. Meanwhile, the percent of Americans dying at home increased from 15 percent to 24 percent.

8. We spend more on health care than ever before. During the 1990s and early 2000s, health costs for older Americans rose rapidly. The good news? According to the survey, in the past few years health costs for seniors have finally leveled off.

9. Seniors are more obese. As with other age groups, the proportion of people age 65 and older who are obese has increased in the past 20 years. Some 38 percent of seniors are now obese, compared to 22 percent in the early 1990s. Over the past few years the trend has leveled off for women (who've shown no significant increase in obesity since the early 2000s), but men continue to get fatter.

10. But they're still healthier than ever. Americans are living longer (though the life expectancy of Americans still lags many other developed nations). According to the Social Security Administration, the average 60-year-old man can expect to live until age 83; the average woman until 85. About three quarters of people over 65 rate their health as good or excellent.

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.