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Health in the Golden Years

by Deborah Jordan Brooks, Gallup Tuesday Briefing Correspondent

As discussed in a recent article (see "A Toast to Good Health" in Related Items), the majority of Americans say they feel they are in good or excellent health. As might be expected, age affects perceptions of one's own health, but clearly not all people over age 65 are destined for major health challenges -- in fact, a substantial majority currently say they live their lives largely unconstrained by illness.

Age and Overall Health

In a November 2002 Gallup Poll*, nearly two-thirds (66%) of people aged 65 and older reported that they are in good or excellent physical health, while 87% of 18- to 29-year-olds say the same. More than four times as many 65+-year-olds as 18- to 29-year-olds feel that their health is poor. But despite that difference, only about 1 in 10 older Americans consider their health to be poor.

Among the younger age groups, few notable differences are seen in self-assessments of health. Eighteen- to 29-year-olds and 30- to 49-year-olds similarly rate their levels of health. Those in the 50- to 64-year-old set are less likely than their younger counterparts to say they are in excellent health, but good health is still widely prevalent -- 74% of 50- to 64-year-olds consider themselves to be in good or excellent health.

Sick Days

Gallup asked respondents the number of days during the past month they felt their physical health was "not good." But because an 18-year-old might have substantially higher health expectations than a 90-year-old, Gallup also asked respondents more specifically how many days during the previous month that poor health kept them from doing their usual activities. Responses to this question illustrate the degree to which older people may feel more burdened by poor health in their daily lives than younger people do.

In looking at these results, one extremely positive finding stands out. Similar percentages of people in all age groups reported that they experienced no days of poor health in the previous month (54% of 18- to 49-year-olds and those 65 and older, 58% of 50- to 64-year-olds).

The same lack of differentiation appeared on the subsequent question: almost three-quarters each of 18- to 49-year-olds, 50- to 64-year-olds, and those 65 and older experienced no days in which their health interfered with their normal daily activities. Of course, the average 80- or 90-year-old may experience more days of poor health than the average 65-year-old, but these results suggest that people aren't necessarily resigned to a life of chronic medical problems once they hit retirement age.

The key difference between older and younger groups of respondents appears to be in the percentage reporting that they did not feel well five or more days in the last month. Nearly twice as many of those 65 and older (28%) as 18- to 49-year olds (15%) say that they did not have good physical health for five or more days in the past month. In contrast, almost twice as many 18- to 49-year-olds (32%) as those 65 and older (15%) report feeling ill just one to four days in the last month. The same patterns occur in the results of the question about the effects of poor health on daily activities.

Key Points

Not surprisingly, age is significantly related to assessments of personal health. Many more older people rate their personal health as being poor than younger people do, and more older people say they have experienced a large number of days recently when poor health prevented them from doing their usual daily activities. Yet roughly equal percentages (nearly three-quarters) of 18- to 49-year-olds, 50- to 64-year-olds, and those 65 and older did not lose a single day to poor health in the last month, and just over half of each group reported feeling good in terms of physical health every day during that same time period. Overall, it appears that people over the age of 65 who experience ill health may be hit harder by it than those in younger age groups, and that more of their days are adversely affected by illness when it does strike.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,001 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 8-11, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of error is ±3%.


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