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New study: A majority of older adults in jail have distressing health symptoms

American Geriatrics Society

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IMAGE: This research summary was developed as a public education tool by the Health in Aging Foundation. The Foundation is a national non-profit established in 1999 by the American Geriatrics Society... view more

Credit: (C) 2016, The Health in Aging Foundation

More than 550,000 adults 55-years-old and older are arrested and detained every year--and that number is increasing rapidly. Yet we know very little about the special health burdens in this population. In a first of its kind study, researchers report that two-thirds of incarcerated older adults experience at least one health-related distressing symptom, such as a chronic disease, physical pain, or emotional suffering.

In the study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, interviewed 125 inmates age 55 and older from an urban county jail. Typically, researchers consider people aged 65 and older to be "older adults." But for this study, younger people were included because it is common for prisoners to experience "accelerated aging" due to lifelong stressful events, including homelessness and lack of health care, said the researchers.

The participants ranged in age from 55- to 87-years-old. A majority of participants (86 percent) reported incomes far below the federal poverty line (a measure of income used to help identify people who are living in poverty).

Of the participants, a significant majority of respondents said they had at least one symptom of physical distress (44 percent), psychological distress (56 percent), extreme loneliness (45 percent), and/or concerns about their personal dignity (54 percent).

Furthermore, participants also reported that they faced difficult social challenges, including being homeless and worrying about physical safety.

The researchers reported that, of the participants:

According to the study, of the older inmates, 49 percent said they experience poor or fair health, 20 percent have chronic lung disease, and 54 percent have trouble performing daily activities such as bathing, eating, using the toilet, and walking around the house. The researchers said that these rates are similar to those reported by lower income older adults who are not incarcerated.

Given that poorly managed conditions are a leading factor in emergency room use, the researchers suggest the need to develop comprehensive programs that focus on assessing, treating, and managing geriatric conditions to help older adults while they are in jail and during their transition back into the community.

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This summary is from "Detained and Distressed: Persistent Distressing Symptoms in a Population of Older Jail Inmates". It appears online ahead of print in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The study authors are Marielle Bolano, BS; Cyrus Ahalt, MPP; Christine Ritchie, MSPH, MD; Irena Stijacic-Cenzer, MS; and Brie Williams, MD.

About the Health in Aging Foundation

This research summary was developed as a public education tool by the Health in Aging Foundation. The Foundation is a national non-profit established in 1999 by the American Geriatrics Society to bring the knowledge and expertise of geriatrics healthcare professionals to the public. We are committed to ensuring that people are empowered to advocate for high-quality care by providing them with trustworthy information and reliable resources. Last year, we reached nearly 1 million people with our resources through HealthinAging.org. We also help nurture current and future geriatrics leaders by supporting opportunities to attend educational events and increase exposure to principles of excellence on caring for older adults. For more information or to support the Foundation's work, visit http://www.HealthinAgingFoundation.org.

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