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Americans are living longer but facing new social, economic woes

November 17, 2011 | 11:55 am

The number of Americans at least 90 years old has tripled in recent decades, according to a government analysis released Thursday, a major shift in population that has implications for social policy, especially regarding housing and healthcare.

The population of people in that age group has grown since the 1980 census to 1.9 million, according to the report released by the Census Bureau and supported by the National Institute on Aging. Further, it could quadruple in the next four decades, the report notes.

That means that, by mid-century, 20% of the total population of the United States will be a person at least 65 and one in 10 of those people will be at least 90.

Individuals within this aging population will likely have at least one disability, will live alone or will live in a nursing home. They're also more likely to be female, because women live longer than men, and will likely be significantly poor.

People are living longer for a variety of reasons -- with better and more available medical care and improved nutrition topping the list. Those improvements prompted the new look at the elderly.

“Traditionally, the cutoff age for what is considered the ‘oldest old’ has been age 85,” stated Census Bureau demographer Wan He, one of the authors, along with Mark Muenchrath, of the report titled “90+ in the United States, 2006-2008.”

“But increasingly people are living longer and the older population itself is getting older. Given its rapid growth, the 90-and-older population merits a closer look,” she said in a prepared statement. “The implications for the family and our society of this growing population are likely to be significant,” the authors stated.

As the population lives longer, its need for services grows. Getting that help, however, could be a problem for an increasingly poor population, especially in tough economic times with the government reconsidering entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

A congressional committee is now wrestling with those issues, and the outcome of its deliberations is sure to be a factor in the partisan politics of the 2012 election cycle.

The demographic numbers paint a grim picture.

For example, an older person’s likelihood of living in a nursing facility increases with age. Only 1% of people in their upper 60s and 3% in their upper 70s were in nursing homes, but that percentage rises to 20% for those in their lower 90s, to more than 30% for those in their upper 90s, and to nearly 40% for those older than 100, according to the report.

Nearly all of those older than 90 and who lived in a nursing home had some disability. But four out of five of those who lived outside a nursing home also had at least one disability, meaning they needed help doing errands and sometimes even just moving around -- presenting other financial problems for families and governments.

The proportion of people age 90 to 94 with disabilities is more than 13 percentage points higher than for those in the 85-to 89-year-old bracket.

Poverty becomes increasingly more likely as a person ages, according to the report. During the 2006 to 2008 time period, 14.5% of people 90 and older lived in poverty, significantly more than the 9.6% of those 65 to 89 who were officially poor.

The annual median personal income for people 90 and older during the period 2006-2008 was $14,760, as measured in inflation adjusted dollars. Almost half of that income -- 47.9% -- came from Social Security, and 18.3% came from retirement pension income. All in all, 92.3% of those 90 and older received income from the Social Security Administration.

Those living longer were overwhelmingly white, 88.1%, according to the report. African Americans represented 7.6%; Asians 2.2% and Latinos, who can be either black or white, about 4%.


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Photo: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times