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Friday, November 18, 2011 - Page updated at 07:00 p.m.

Americans living longer but facing new woes

By Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The rolls of America's oldest old are surging: Nearly 2 million are 90 or older, nearly triple that of 30 years ago, according to a government analysis released Thursday.

The shift in population has implications for social policy, especially regarding housing and health care.

The population of people 90 or older has grown since the 1980 census to 1.9 million, according to the report by the Census Bureau and supported by the National Institute on Aging.

Joined by graying baby boomers, the "oldest old" are projected to increase to 8.7 million by midcentury, making up 2 percent of the total U.S. population and one in 10 older Americans. That's a big change from more than 100 years ago, when fewer than 100,000 people reached 90.

The first census data on the 90-plus population highlight America's increasing life spans, which are redefining what it means to be old.

"Traditionally, the cutoff age for what is considered the 'oldest old' has been age 85," said Census Bureau demographer Wan He, one of the report's authors, along with Mark Muenchrath, of the report, "90+ in the United States, 2006-2008."

Poverty

It's not all good news. People in the 90-plus population are more likely than the merely elderly to live in poverty and to have disabilities, creating a new challenge to strained retiree income and health-care programs.

Demographers attribute the increase in the 90-plus population mostly to better nutrition and advances in medical care. Still, the longer life spans present additional risks for disabilities and chronic conditions, such as arthritis, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.

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 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 percent of people in their upper 60s and 3 percent in their upper 70s were in nursing homes, but that percentage rises to 20 percent for those in their lower 90s, to more than 30 percent for those in their upper 90s, and to nearly 40 percent for those older than 100, according to the report.

Disabilities

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

Among those 95 and older, the disability rate climbs to 91 percent.

Poverty becomes increasingly more likely as a person ages, according to the report. From 2006-08, 14.5 percent of people 90 and older lived in poverty, significantly more than the 9.6 percent of those 65 to 89 who were officially poor.

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

"As we look at these numbers, we see just how critically important programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are, especially for the very old in America," said David Certner, legislative-policy director at AARP. "These are the people — mostly single elderly women — who can least afford a cut to their Social Security cost-of-living adjustment."

Other findings in the census report:

• Among the 90-plus population, women outnumber men by a ratio of nearly 3 to 1.

• Broken down by race and ethnicity, non-Hispanic whites made up the vast majority of the 90-plus population, at 88.1 percent. That's compared to 7.6 percent who were black, 4 percent Hispanic and 2.2 percent Asian.

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