Senior health report indicates disparities

ALBANY, Ga. -- A recent report showing that the state has some improvements to make regarding senior health indicates that Southwest Georgia might also have work to do in some areas.

The recent first edition of "America's Health Rankings Senior Report: A Call to Action for Individuals and Their Communities" had Georgia ranked 43rd for senior health.

Commissioned by the United Health Foundation, the report is meant to examine the health challenges affecting today's seniors and encourage the nation and local communities to find ways to improve senior health.

"It is not unlike some of the other rankings we've seen," said Dr. Jacqueline Grant, director of the Southwest Public Health District.

Americans are living longer but sicker lives while the nation's senior population is poised to grow more than 50 percent between 2015 and 2030, making senior health a timely and critical national issue, officials say. The report builds on the annual America's Health Rankings report which, for 23 years, has presented an analysis of national health on a state-by-state basis by evaluating a historical and comprehensive set of health, environmental and socioeconomic data to determine national health benchmarks and state rankings.

"For a number of years, the United Health Foundation ranked health for all 50 states for the general population. Since there are more seniors living longer than before, we decided to focus on senior health," said Dr. Catherine Palmier, chief medical officer for UnitedHealth Group Southeast Region. "There are lots of reasons to look at senior health and wellness.

"In 2011, we began the retirement of the baby boomers; they will be a very large demographic of the population. They are living longer, and many are living with chronic illness as they age."

The America's Health Rankings Senior Report assessed state-level performance on 34 different elements, including health determinants and health outcomes. Researchers drew data from more than 12 government agencies and research organizations, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Labor, The Dartmouth Atlas Project, National Foundation to End Senior Hunger and the Commonwealth Fund.

While the report found that Georgia has demonstrated a low prevalence of chronic drinking and a high percentage of health screenings, there are still challenges that need to be overcome -- such as a high prevalence of smoking, high prevalence of underweight seniors and a high prevalence of food insecurity.

The report does not break the data down by local level, but Grant said the challenges Southwest Georgians are facing may be just as bad if not grimmer -- especially considering some of the factors that come into play when such rankings are compiled, including access to primary care, geographic disparities and infant mortality.

"I would say we are facing even greater challenges," she said. "Our behaviors aren't any better, and some may be worse.

"... If we stack all of this up, we would probably fare worse in rural areas than in urban areas."

To some degree, poverty and pre-existing conditions might be a factor in some of these rankings.

"We all talk about obesity, but when you get older, there is a decline in appetite," Palmier said regarding the underweight seniors ranking. "They may have difficulty with finances, or need help getting groceries.

"Food insecurity means there is not a secure available food supply that can properly nourish them. They may be worried there is not enough food for tomorrow."

There may also be other food insecurity factors in play.

"(It could indicate) a lack of quality food providers," Grant said. "It is a poverty issue, certainly, but also a geographic issue."

A statistical snapshot of Georgia from the report showed that one in six seniors in the state is marginally food insecure. At the same time, the report showed that more than one in three seniors is physically inactive.

In the most recent general health report conducted by United Health, Georgia ranked No. 44.

"Most of the (state) rankings in the senior report mirror the general report," Palmier said.

At least from Grant's perspective, the healthiest way to look at a report such as this one is with the attitude that the results can show what message community leaders could be sending to improve the rankings.

This report in particular may indicate that behavioral changes need to be continued to be pushed, preferably in the younger population. This means promoting exercise, even if it's just moderate in nature, as well as encouraging healthier diets, smoking cessation, regular screenings and methods of lowering stress.

"Those are the kinds of messages people are not too old to hear," she said. "... (The public) needs to look at all these reports the same way. We need to look at what we can do to improve health, (such as) changing behaviors. That's No. 1.

"We need to make sure people are going into better health as seniors. This translates into better quality of life in senior years."

The report can be viewed and downloaded at www.americashealthrankings.org.