published Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama seniors rank low in nation for health

SENIOR HEALTH SNAPSHOTS

The study measures state-level performance on 34 different criteria, which include both health determinants and outcomes.

TENNESSEE

Rank: 41

Strengths:

• Low prevalence of chronic drinking

• High percentage of social support

• Low prevalence of falls

Weaknesses:

• High prevalence of physical inactivity

• High prevalence of food insecurity. More than 150,000 adults aged 60 and older in Tennessee are marginally food insecure.

• High prevalence of tooth extractions

Disparities:

  • The rate of obesity among black seniors is 41.8 percent, compared to 24.6 percent among white seniors.

GEORGIA

Rank: 43

Strengths:

• Low prevalence of chronic drinking

• High percentage of hospice care

Weaknesses:

• High prevalence of smoking. In Georgia, more than 110,000 adults aged 65 and older smoke.

• High prevalence of underweight seniors

• High prevalence of food insecurity

• Many poor mental health days per month

Disparities:

Seniors with college degrees report higher health status, less physical inactivity, and greater social and emotional support than seniors with less than high school diplomas.

ALABAMA

Rank: 44

Strengths:

• Low prevalence of chronic drinking

• High percentage of seniors who received recommended hospital care

• High percentage of creditable drug coverage

Weaknesses:

• High prevalence of physical inactivity; 36.9 percent of adults aged 65 and older, or more than 240,000 seniors, are inactive.

• Low prevalence of able-bodied seniors

• High premature death rate

Disparities:

• Some 50.7 percent of seniors with less than high school diplomas are physically inactive, compared to 22.5 percent of seniors with college degrees.

Source: America's Heath Rankings Senior Report

The "golden years" in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama don't have much of a glow.

The three states -- which all habitually sink toward the bottom of national health rankings -- landed in the bottom tenth of states for overall senior citizens' health, according to the latest America's Heath Rankings Senior Report.

Tennessee has the highest rate of physical inactivity in the U.S., with more than 350,000 inactive residents 65 and older bracket. In Georgia, a high percentage of seniors live in poverty, compounding health problems like food insecurity. And Alabama is struggling with a high geriatrician shortfall, along with its long list of senior health deficiencies.

The study, released this week by the United Health Foundation, shows that America's seniors are living "longer but sicker lives." More than half of American seniors live with multiple chronic conditions.

More than 25 percent of American seniors are obese.

"Chronic illness is unnecessarily high among seniors," said Rhonda Randall, senior adviser to the foundation, which is a nonprofit arm of insurer UnitedHealth Group. "The coordination of care for seniors, particularly for the 50 percent of the population with multiple chronic illnesses, is complex and increases pressure on our country's caregivers and our health care system."

That population is swelling as baby boomers age. The senior demographic is expected to grow more than 50 percent in the next 17 years. By 2050, seniors will make up a quarter of the U.S. population.

Regionally, seniors showed higher rates of poverty, inactivity and preventable hospitalizations. Many seniors in the tri-state region do not have regular access to healthy foods, a condition known as food insecurity.

In Georgia, almost 180,000 seniors have food insecurity.

Those numbers don't surprise Debbie Studdard, director of Northwest Georgia's Area Agency on Aging, which serves more than 3,000 seniors across 15 counties.

"Food security is a big issue for our seniors. They're forced to choose between quality food and their medications while on a very limited budget," she said.

Studdard's office offers nutrition screenings. Seniors struggling to eat well may be assigned a registered dietitian, connected with a food bank or signed up for a delivered meal.

But the number of seniors the office can reach is hampered by tight budgets -- which Studdard says likely will be squeezed tighter by federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

"We've never had to cut anyone off of service. After July 1 the threat is absolutely real that we will have to cut some services," she said.

In Tennessee, one troubling trend is the high rate of tooth extractions. More than 33 percent of adults 65 and older have had all their teeth extracted -- one of the highest rates in the nation.

There are many reasons why seniors face more tooth decay, said Dr. Ernie Oyler Jr., president of the Chattanooga Dental Society.

Hygiene may be more difficult, as seniors battle mobility issues and chronic conditions such as arthritis. Medications may affect gum health. And seniors may have Medicare supplements that do not cover the dental care they need.

One option Oyler often recommends for seniors and other patients who can't afford the dentist are dental hygiene schools at community colleges.

Since he started his career, Oyler says, he has seen the number of extractions go down thanks to medical advancement. But age still takes its toll.

"Overall prevalence has gone down," he said. "The problem is we're living longer, and the opportunity to develop these problems is much higher."

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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