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Growing Old Doesn't Necessarily Mean Growing Infirm

Growing Old Doesn't Necessarily Mean Growing Infirm

Those 80 and older are widely reported to be living healthy, independent lives

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- New Gallup data on the health of elderly adults suggest that some of the common fears people have about aging could be based more on the worst-case scenarios than the actual experiences of today's oldest seniors. Far from becoming frail and losing their independence, nearly half of Americans aged 80 and older appear to enjoy generally good physical as well as mental health, and most live in their own homes. There is a clear decline in mobility once a person gets into his or her 90s, but the majority in this group still enjoys good mental health and continues to live independently.

These findings are based on the secondary reports of nearly 1,000 family members of elderly relatives that Gallup interviewed on three Gallup Panel surveys between August and October of this year. One-third of U.S. adults (34%) say they have a parent, grandparent, or sibling who is at least 80 years old. Gallup asked these respondents to describe the physical and mental health of the oldest of these relatives as well as that person's living arrangement. While Gallup could ask elderly Americans directly about these matters, a standard telephone survey does not include people living in arrangements such as nursing homes, and is likely to miss people too frail or mentally deficient to be interviewed.

Thus, this approach of asking Americans about their senior relatives ensures a fuller picture. At the same time, a cautionary note is warranted as the family members interviewed may not be fully aware of the health status or living situation of their elderly relatives.

Better Mental Than Physical Health

When asked to describe the physical health of the oldest of their elderly relatives, the majority of respondents (53%) say that person's physical health is either excellent or good. Even more, 69%, describe that person's mental health in positive terms.

Relatively few respondents (12%) describe their elderly relative's physical health as excellent, but this is not extraordinarily different from the 28% of all adults (according to Gallup's 2006 November Health and Healthcare survey) who say their own physical health is excellent.

One important aspect of good physical health is, of course, the ability to walk well. According to their relative's reports, 4 in 10 elderly Americans can walk on their own without any difficulty, while another 29% can still walk on their own but have some difficulty. About one in four require a cane or other medical device to be able to walk, while 7% are not able to walk at all.

Although only 37% of respondents describe their elderly relative's mental health as excellent, this is not much different from the 45% of all U.S. adults who describe their mental health as excellent. There is a slightly greater gap at the bottom of the scale, where only 14% of all Americans describe their mental health as only fair or poor, compared with 30% of those with elderly relatives saying their parent, grandparent, or sibling suffers from less than good mental health.

Close to Half in Good All-Around Shape

Combining the physical and mental health ratings of elderly Americans, it appears that nearly half of this population (47%) enjoys good or excellent health on both dimensions, based on the reports of their close relatives. Only about half that number (24%) has less than good health in both areas. An additional 29% has mixed health: either excellent or good physical health but only fair or poor mental health -- or the reverse.

Summary of Physical and Mental Health Condition

%

Physical and mental health excellent/good

47

Mixed*

29

Physical and mental health only fair/poor

24

*One aspect is excellent/good; other aspect is only fair/poor

Most Elderly Live Independently

Two-thirds of elderly seniors are reported to be living in their own home or apartment, and another 5% live in a retirement home where they still live independently except for possibly participating in community meals. About one in five reportedly live in a situation in which they may be getting more help, including 12% who live with a relative, 6% living in an assisted-living facility where they can do many things on their own but get some nursing care, and 8% living in a retirement or nursing home where they get assistance with all or most of their personal care.

The percentage living in their own home clearly declines with age, falling from 78% of those aged 80 to 84 to 68% of those 85 to 89 to 45% of those aged 90 and older.

The majority of those in excellent or good physical or mental health still live in their own home. Those with poor mental health are much less likely to be living in their own home than those with poor physical health (27% vs. 45%).

Mobility Suffers in 90s

One might expect a steady decline in the reported health of seniors as they move from their early 80s to their late 80s and into their 90s. However, an analysis of the data by age offers conflicting evidence of the validity of this expectation with respect to physical health. Respondents' overall rating of their oldest relative's physical health varies little according to the age of the relative. At least half say their relative's physical health is excellent or good, regardless of whether they are in the 80 to 84 bracket or 90-plus.

Physical Health Description by Age

80-84

85-89

90+

%

%

%

Excellent

13

11

7

Good

40

39

45

Only fair

35

32

36

Poor

12

17

11

Total excellent/good

53

50

52

At the same time, the data show a decline in seniors' ability to walk well without medical aides as they get older. The overall percentage who can walk independently (either with or without difficulty) declines from 80% among those whose relative is 80 to 84 to 68% among those 85 to 89, and then sharply lower to 46% among those 90 and older. An even sharper distinction between octogenarians and those 90+ is seen in the percentage who can walk well with no difficulty, declining from 44% among those 85 to 89 to only 19% among those 90 and older.

Walking Ability

80-84

85-89

90+

%

%

%

Walk on own without difficulty

48

44

19

Walk on own with some difficulty

32

24

27

Walk with some assistance or medical device

16

26

40

Not able to walk at all

4

6

14

Total walk on own

80

68

46

There is a more clear-cut decline in mental capacity according to the age of the senior relative. The percentage of respondents describing their elderly relative's mental health as excellent drops from 44% among those 80 to 84 to 32% among those 85 to 89 and 29% among those 90 and older.

Mental Health Description by Age

80-84

85-89

90+

%

%

%

Excellent

44

32

29

Good

32

33

33

Only fair

19

24

28

Poor

5

11

10

Total excellent/good

76

65

62

Similarly, there is a significant gap between those 80 to 84 and those 85 and older in the percentage reported to be fully alert with good memory.

Mental Capacity

80-84

85-89

90+

%

%

%

Fully alert with good memory

49

34

39

Minor memory loss, but still functions well

43

47

46

Significant memory loss that impairs ability to function well

5

9

7

Severe memory loss; entirely dependent on others

3

9

8

Total good memory/minor memory loss

92

81

85

Gender

In conformance with statistics showing women live longer than men do, far more respondents indicate that their oldest relative is a woman than a man. A total of 70% say this relative is their grandmother (39%), mother (24%), or sister (7%). Only 29% say it is either a grandfather (14%), father (11%), or brother (4%). That is the good news for women. The bad news is that older women are somewhat less likely than older men to be in excellent health.

There are not enough respondents with a male relative aged 90 or older to break out the results by gender for this oldest category. However, among those 80 to 84, 55% of men, compared with 45% of women are able to walk independently without any difficulty. This gap enlarges to 25 points (62% vs. 37%) among those 85 to 89.

Percentage Able to Walk on Their Own Without Difficulty

80-84

85-89

90+

Men

55%

62

n/a

Women

45%

37

15

With respect to mental health, men and women aged 80 to 84 are about equally likely to have strong mental capacities, but the percentage of women who are reported to be fully alert with good memory declines sharply among those 85 to 89 and 90-plus.

Percentage Fully Alert With Good Memory

80-84

85-89

90+

Men

45%

56

n/a

Women

50%

26

34

Survey Methods

Results for this panel study are based on telephone interviews with 2,967 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted across three surveys: Aug. 28-31, Sept. 21-24, and Oct. 23-26, 2006. Respondents were randomly drawn from Gallup's nationally representative household panel, which was originally recruited through random selection methods. For results based on the total aggregated sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±2 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 964 adults with a relative aged 80 or older, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Now, we have a few questions about your family,

1. Do you, personally, have a parent, grandparent, brother, or sister living today who is 80 years of age or older?

Yes

No

No opinion

2006 Aug-Oct

34%

66

*

2. Next, we'd like you to think about the oldest family member, 80 years of age or older, that is either your parent, grandparent, brother or sister. What is this person's relation to you?

BASED ON 965 U.S. ADULTS WITH A RELATIVE AGED 80 OR OLDER

Mother

Father

Grandmother

Grandfather

Brother

Sister

2006 Aug-Oct

24%

11

39

14

4

7

3. What is your [mother/father/grandmother/grandfather/brother/sister]'s current age? [If unsure: What is your best guess as to his/her age]?

BASED ON 964 U.S. ADULTS WITH A RELATIVE AGED 80 OR OLDER

80-84
years

85-89
years

90-94
years

95-99
years

100+
years

No
opinion

2006 Aug-Oct

51%

29

12

7

1

1

4. How would you rate your [mother/father/grandmother/grandfather/brother/sister]'s physical health at this time? Would you say his/her physical health is excellent, good, only fair, or poor?

BASED ON 964 U.S. ADULTS WITH A RELATIVE AGED 80 OR OLDER


Excellent


Good

Only
fair


Poor

No
opinion

2006 Aug-Oct

12%

41

34

13

*

5. Still thinking about this person's physical abilities, which of the following best describes your [mother/father/grandmother/grandfather/brother/sister]'s physical condition at this time: able to walk on his/her own without any difficulty, able to walk on his/her own but with some difficulty, able to walk but only with a cane, walker or other medical device, or not able to walk at all?

BASED ON 964 U.S. ADULTS WITH A RELATIVE AGED 80 OR OLDER

Able to walk
without any
difficulty

Able to walk,
but with some
difficulty

Able to walk
only with cane
or other medical
device

Not able to walk
at all

No
opinion

2006 Aug-Oct

41%

29

23

7

*

6. How would you rate your [mother/father/grandmother/grandfather/brother/sister]'s mental health or emotional well-being at this time? Would you say it is excellent, good, only fair, or poor?

BASED ON 964 U.S. ADULTS WITH A RELATIVE AGED 80 OR OLDER


Excellent


Good

Only
fair


Poor

No
opinion

2006 Aug-Oct

37%

32

22

8

*

7. Still thinking about this person's mental abilities, which of the following best describes your [mother/father/grandmother/grandfather/brother/sister]'s memory at this time: fully alert with a good memory; has some minor memory loss, but still functions well; has significant memory loss that impairs his or her ability to function well; or has severe memory loss that makes him or her entirely dependent on others?

BASED ON 964 U.S. ADULTS WITH A RELATIVE AGED 80 OR OLDER

Fully alert with
good memory

Some memory loss
but still functions
well

Significant memory loss
that impairs ability to
function well

Severe memory loss
that makes them
entirely dependent

No
opinion

2006 Aug-Oct

43%

45

7

6

*

8. Which of the following best describes where your [mother/father/grandmother/grandfather/ brother/sister] is currently living: in their own home or apartment; in the home of a relative such as a child or sibling; in a retirement home where they still live independently though they may eat community meals in a community dining hall; in an assisted living facility where they can do many things on their own but get some care from nurses or other staff; in a retirement or nursing home where they are primarily cared for by nurses or other staff, or do they have another type of living arrangement?

BASED ON 964 U.S. ADULTS WITH A RELATIVE AGED 80 OR OLDER

Own home or
apartment

Relative's
home

Independent
living facility

Assisted-
living facility

Retirement
or nursing home

No
opinion

2006 Aug-Oct

68%

12

5

6

8

*

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