New Study Grades Senior Quality of Life and Health by State

A recent study led by a group of University of Miami Miller School of Medicine public health researchers shows that Florida, Delaware and states in the Northeast and Midwest have thriving senior populations that are healthier than those in other areas.

By contrast, seniors in Alaska and most Southern states overwhelmingly rated their quality of life as lagging, which is consistent with previous studies showing older adults in the South have a higher prevalence of smoking, diabetes and other chronic illnesses, and lower life expectancy.

“The study provides a calculated look at how well seniors are able to perform functions of daily living and the impact that it has on their health,” said the study’s lead author, Diana Kachan, Ph.D., a third year medical student at the Miller School.

Published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s journal Preventing Chronic Disease, the study is the first to rate “health-related quality of life” for seniors in all 50 states. While health parameters vary by location, the rankings tend to mirror the variations seen in the rates of mortality and sickness among the elderly throughout the U.S., researchers said.

Vermont, Arizona, New Hampshire and Nevada were among the top ranking states. Southern states such as Alabama, West Virginia and Mississippi fell below the bar, but Delaware, which was considered a Southern state, ranked No. 1.

“There were tremendous variations in the quality of life, which states can use as a guide to advocate for policy changes and funding for more targeted health services delivery, to provide more activity and exercise opportunities and to improve their transportation systems,” said David Lee, Ph.D, professor of public health sciences, director of graduate programs, and a study collaborator.

Aside from having one of the densest populations and highest per capita incomes, Delaware has an award-winning transportation system with a statewide, door-to-door transit service for the elderly. By contrast, Alaska, which fell last on the list, has low population density, a public transportation system that seniors rated as difficult to access, and a challenging climate.

“Southern states are generally known for high rates of disability and limited mobility and had the highest concentration of elderly with poor functional status, diabetes, stroke, obesity and hypertension,” said Kachan, whose previous research centered on the health of older workers in the U.S.

Florida came in 14th, a ranking above other traditional Southern states, which researchers attribute to its warm climate, its sizeable population of Hispanic seniors, who are known to be healthier, and healthy seniors who migrated from the North. “It’s a healthy migration effect which could partially explain the findings,” said Lee.

The study describes Florida as uncharacteristic of the rest of the traditional South. Similar to Delaware, Florida’s elderly have a much higher life expectancy, are more physically active and less likely to smoke, Lee said.

“Part of what makes Florida unique is that it’s an attractive place for people to settle after retirement,” said Lee, noting that those who move here are generally healthier in part because they have the financial resources to relocate and because such a move is not impeded by serious chronic health conditions.

The study’s findings were based on the responses of 80,000 seniors age 65 and older who participated in the National Health Interview Survey between 1997 and 2010. The survey is an annual assessment tool for seniors across the U.S. to rate their health based on five questions, including whether they need help with personal care and routine errands, have difficulty working, or are unable to work due to a health problem. They also rate their health as excellent, very good, good, fair, or poor.

Participants were not in nursing homes or any other facility.

In the course of gathering the data, researchers also found that positive health indicators among young adults throughout the U.S. correlated to states with healthier seniors. States with better modes of transportation and other amenities positively impact the health and quality of life of younger and older generations.

“States should take note that cultivating a healthier future for their seniors also means targeting younger adults,” Kachan said.

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