Public Release: 

Federal forum reports Americans aging well, but gaps remain

NIH/National Institute on Aging

Most older people are healthier, wealthier, and better educated than previous generations, but these gains have not been equal among today's older Americans.

In 2003, there were almost 36 million people age 65 and over living in the United States, accounting for just over 12 percent of the total population. Most of these older Americans reported better health, greater wealth, and higher levels of education than older people in the past. However, some groups of older Americans are disproportionately disadvantaged including those with limited education, women, and minorities. These findings are presented in Older Americans 2004: Key Indicators of Well-Being, the second comprehensive analysis of the lives of older Americans compiled by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics (Forum).

The Forum, established in 1986, is a consortium of 12 Federal departments and agencies that collect or use national data on older Americans, including population trends, health status, economic prosperity, and use of health care services. The goal of the Forum is to improve the quality and usefulness of data on aging.

"Older Americans 2004 provides a comprehensive picture of one of the fastest growing segments of our society," says Katherine K. Wallman, Chief Statistician, U.S. Office of Management and Budget. "The report is an invaluable resource that provides a wealth of data from diverse sources across the Federal Government."

Older Americans 2004: Key Indicators of Well-Being, an update of the Forum's 2000 report, comprises 37 key indicators concerning lives of older Americans and their families. The indicators are divided into five subject areas: population, economics, health status, health risks and behaviors, and health care. The data are arrayed in charts and tables with accompanying narrative.

Highlights include:


  • Older Americans have attained higher levels of education. In 1950, 17 percent of the older population had graduated from high school and only 3 percent had at least a Bachelor's degree. By 2003, 72 percent were high school graduates and 17 percent had at least a Bachelor's degree.

  • Despite the overall increase in educational attainment among older Americans, substantial educational differences exist among racial and ethnic groups. In 2003, 76 percent of non-Hispanic whites age 65 and over had completed high school. Older Asians also had a high proportion with at least a high school education (70 percent). In contrast, 52 percent of older blacks and 36 percent of older Hispanics had completed high school.

  • Between 1990 and 2000, the proportion of men age 65 and over who were veterans went up from 54 percent to 65 percent. Although the number of older veterans is projected to decline slightly from 2000 to 2010, it is projected to increase thereafter due to the aging of Vietnam era veterans.


  • The trend in median household income of the older population has been positive. Between 1974 and 2002, the median income for households in which the householder was 65 and over increased (in 2002 dollars) from $16,882 to $23,152. Correspondingly, fewer older people are living below the poverty threshold. The percentage of older people living in poverty declined from 35 percent in 1959 to 10 percent in 2002.

  • Between 1984 and 2001, the median net worth of households headed by people age 65 and over increased by 82 percent (after accounting for inflation). Although the rate of growth has been substantial for both older black and older white households, large differences in wealth continue to exist. In 2001, the median net worth of older white households ($205,000) was five times larger than for older black households ($41,000).

  • More women age 55-69 are working than ever before. In 2003, about three-fifths of women age 55-61, almost two-fifths of women age 62-64, and more than one-fifth of women age 65-69 were in the labor force.

    Health Status

  • Americans are living longer than ever before. In 1900, the average 65-year-old could expect to live almost 12 more years and the average 85-year-old could expect to live an additional 4 years. By 2001, life expectancy at age 65 had increased to more than 19 years for women and about 16 years for men, and at age 85 it was 7 years for women and 6 years for men.

  • The age-adjusted proportion of older Americans with a chronic disability declined from about 25 percent in 1984 to 20 percent in 1999. The proportion disabled declined from 19 percent to 15 percent for men age 65 and over and from 28 percent to 23 percent for women age 65 and over. Because of the decline in disability rates, the number of older Americans with chronic disabilities increased by only 600,000 from 6.2 million in 1984 to 6.8 million in 1999. This number would have been much higher had the disability rate not declined.

  • In 2002, close to one-half of all older men and nearly one-third of older women reported trouble hearing without a hearing aid. Vision problems, even with glasses or contact lenses, affected 18 percent of the older population, specifically 16 percent of men and 19 percent of women.

    Health Risks and Behaviors

  • The increase in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among older adults has been dramatic. In 1999-2002, 69 percent of Americans age 65 and over were overweight or obese. In the last 2 decades, the increases among those age 65-74 have been especially striking. Between 1976-1980 and 1999-2002, the percentage of people age 65-74 who were overweight or obese rose from 57 percent to 73 percent; the percentage who were obese doubled from 18 percent to 36 percent.

  • The percentage of older men who are current smokers declined from 29 percent in 1965 to 10 percent in 2002. The corresponding percentage for women has remained relatively constant, declining slightly from 10 percent in 1965 to 9 percent in 2002.

  • In 2002, 46 percent of people age 65 and over lived in a county where ozone concentrations reached levels that were above EPA standards compared with 26 percent in 2000. About 19 percent lived in a county where fine "particulate matter" (PM 2.5) concentrations, considered to have the greatest potential to affect the health of older adults, reached levels that were above EPA standards. This percentage was 27 percent in 2000.

    Health Care

  • Medicare pays for slightly more than half (54 percent) of the overall health care costs of its enrollees age 65 and over. This population pays 21 percent of their health care costs out-of-pocket. Medicaid covers 10 percent of costs, and other payers, primarily private insurers, cover another 15 percent.

  • Average prescription drug costs for older Americans increased rapidly throughout the 1990s, especially after 1997. Average costs per noninstitutionalized Medicare enrollee age 65 and over were $1,340 in 2000. The average number of filled prescriptions for this population also rose substantially over time, averaging 18 filled prescriptions in 1992 and 30 filled prescriptions in 2000.

  • An increasing number of older veterans are turning to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) for their health care needs despite their potential eligibility for other sources of health care. In 2003, approximately 2.3 million veterans age 65 and over received health care from VHA, and an additional 1 million older veterans were enrolled to receive health care from VHA but did not use its services that year.


    Contact: Jeannine Mjoseth
    Additional list of media contacts below.

    The 12 agencies and departments that comprise the Forum are the Administration on Aging, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Social Security Administration.

    The report is available after embargo at Single printed copies of Older Americans 2004: Key Indicators of Well-Being can be obtained from the National Center for Health Statistics by calling 301-458-4636 or by sending an e-mail to For multiple print copies, contact Forum Staff Director Kristen Robinson at 301-458-4460 or send an e-mail request to

    News media may view the report prior to the embargo date on a special web site sponsored by the Forum. Please call media contacts to obtain more information about access to that website or to get a printed copy of the embargoed report.

    Additional Media Contacts:

    Administration on Aging
    Principal Member: Josefina G. Carbonell
    Deputy/Alternate: Frank Burns
    Working Group: Saadia Greenberg Media Contact: Carol Crecy, 202-401-4541

    Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
    Principal Member: Steven Cohen
    Working Group: D.E.B. Potter
    Media Contact: Karen Migdail, 301-427-1855

    Bureau of Labor Statistics
    Principal Member: Thomas Nardone
    Working Group: Ryan Helwig
    Media Contact: Gary Steinberg, 202-691-5902

    Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services
    Principal Member: Stuart Guterman
    Working Group: Gerald Riley
    Media Contact: Peter Ashkenaz, 202-690-6149.

    Department of Veterans Affairs
    Principal Member: Stephen Meskin
    Working Group: Robert Klein, Donald Stockford
    Media Contact: Karen E. Fedele, 202-273-4898

    Environmental Protection Agency
    Principal Member: N. Phillip Ross
    Working Group: Kathy Sykes
    Media Contact: John Millett, 202-564-7842.

    National Center for Health Statistics
    Principal Member: Edward J. Sondik
    Deputy/Alternate: Jennifer Madans, James Lubitz
    Working Group: Ellen Kramarow, Julie Weeks
    Media Contact: Sandy Smith, 301-458-4800

    National Institute on Aging
    Principal Member: Richard Hodes
    Deputy/Alternate: Judy Salerno, Richard Suzman
    Working Group: Elayne Heisler
    Media Contact: Jeannine Mjoseth, 301-496-1752

    Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation/HHS
    Principal Member: Michael O'Grady
    Deputy/Alternate: Ruth Katz
    Working Group: William Marton, Hakan Aykan
    Media Contact: William Marton, 202-690-6443

    Office of Management and Budget
    Principal Member: Katherine K. Wallman
    Working Group: Brian Harris-Kojetin
    Media Contact: Chad Kolton, 202-395-9143

    Social Security Administration
    Principal Member: Susan Grad
    Working Group: Howard Iams
    Media Contact: Mark Lassiter, 410-965-8904

    U.S. Census Bureau
    Principal Member: Nancy M. Gordon
    Working Group: Karen Humes, Victoria Velkoff
    Media Contact: Mike Bergman, 301-763-3046

    Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics
    Staff Director: Kristen Robinson
    Media Contact: Sandy Smith, NCHS, 301-458-4800

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