The health of Garden State residents who are 65 and older falls slightly short of the nation’s better half. In its 11th America’s Health Rankings Senior Report, the United Health Foundation ranked New Jersey at No. 29 among states. New Jersey was neither listed with those that have the most to improve upon – Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Oklahoma – nor the healthiest – Utah, New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota and Vermont.
The United Health Foundation was established by UnitedHealth Group in 1999 as a not-for-profit, private foundation dedicated to improving health and health care. The annual report covers 52 health measures from 22 sources to shine a light on strengths, areas where improvements are needed and long-term trends when it comes to the health of older Americans. And as populations age, that information can provide useful and actionable insights to support the boom.
According to the World Health Organization, every country in the world is experiencing growth in the size, and the proportion, of older populations. In 2020, the over 65 population reached 55.8 million in the U.S., representing more than 16% of the total. That considerable proportion is mirrored in New Jersey, according to U.S. Census data, where Gov. Phil Murphy signed a proclamation recognizing May 2023 as Older Americans Month.
For the second year in a row, the UnitedHealth report recorded a continued increase in early death rates among seniors. From 2019-2020, the early death rate among older Americans (ages 65-74) jumped 17%, bucking a decline that had persisted until that point since 2011, according to the report. From 2020-2021, that number increased again for a total 22% jump since 2019.
A low early death rate was cited in the report as a strength for New Jersey, which ranked sixth for the criteria among other states. The Garden State also ranked high (No. 5) for its number of geriatric providers, with more than 49 providers per 100,000 age-applicable adults. And more family medicine, internal medicine geriatricians and nurse practitioners provide more opportunities for this population to find treatment. In fact, the per capita growth of geriatric caregivers, along with home health providers, was highlighted by the report as areas of continued improvement nationwide.
Since 2018, the number of the former has increased by 26%. For personal and home health care workers, the report said the number of workers per 1,000 older adults has gone up by 29% since 2016. New Jersey ranked 20th for the number of home health care workers per capita.
On the flipside, a nationwide concern was also evident in the Garden State’s data. Continuing a 10-year trend, drug deaths continued to rise among older Americans, according to the report which attributed opioid-related deaths as a major component of the 43% nationwide increase that occurred from 2016-208 and 2019-2021. In New Jersey, the figure leapt 158% between 2014-2016 and 2019-2021, according to the report.
Last December, The Partnership For A Drug-Free New Jersey sought to raise awareness around this growing concern.
“The senior population may not have been in the spotlight when it comes to drug overdoses and substance use or misuse, but we realize no one is immune when it comes to opioids,” Angelo Valente, executive director of the PDFNJ, said at the time.
The group referenced CDC data indicating that death rates from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids for adults 65 and older increased by 53% from 2019 to 2020.
“To combat the opioid epidemic and keep New Jersey residents safe, it is crucial that we raise awareness of the dangers of prescription opioids among older adults, their families and caregivers,” Valente added. “We also must continue to educate prescribers and medical professionals on safer prescribing practices.”
While New Jersey did boast other strengths for seniors, including a low prevalence of obesity (eighth in the nation) and a 17% increase in flu vaccination rates from 2013-2021, it ranked dead last in a category that the report found burdens nearly one-third of older adults nationwide.
In the “Severe Housing Problems” data set, New Jersey came in 50th. Elsewhere in the “Physical Environment” category, the state was ranked 49th for both housing cost burden and drinking water violations; air pollution placed slightly higher, at 28th.
Recounting its 2022 Housing Series in an opinion piece for NJ.com, New Jersey Advocates for Aging Well Executive Director Cathy Rowe called attention to the issue. “An aging population needs not only official ‘affordable housing’ programs but options that are just plain affordable and appropriate. We are optimistic that with the growing age-friendly movement at municipal, county and state levels, communities will commit to being more accessible and inclusive for older adults,” she wrote.
Rowe also advised legislators and other government officials to assist by: adapting existing housing stock to keep people in their homes; bolstering home and community support services; ensuring affordability, through property tax relief; and comprehensive planning to support integrated intergenerational housing.
Other challenges identified in the 65-plus population in New Jersey by the UnitedHealth report were its low hospice care use (46th among states) and a high prevalence of multiple chronic conditions (40th nationwide).
As the country continues to grapple with the effects of pandemic-induced isolation, the report found that millions of older Americans are at risk for social solitude: From 2017-2021, more than 20 million were divorced, separated or widowed; over 17 million had a disability; and nearly 14 million lived alone.
According to Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer and executive vice president at UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual, “the negative implications from social isolation are severe.”
“These concerning numbers should be a wakeup call to focus more on the mental and physical wellbeing of seniors everywhere. Preserving social connectedness, mobility, and independence contributes to quality of life for older Americans,” she said. “It’s important for us to learn from the data of this report and focus on promoting the wellbeing of all older Americans.”
The report also drew attention to the importance of connections for addressing health challenges among older Americans. In his Older Americans Month declaration, the governor recognized that “New Jersey is home to 1.8 million individuals aged 60 and older,” and echoed the call to foster relationships.
“Whereas, recognizing the contributions and successes of older adults encourages their ongoing participation and further accomplishments; and Whereas, the State of New Jersey … is committed to ensuring older adults have access to a comprehensive systems of support services that values and promotes their independence, dignity and choice,” the proclamation states, before closing with a call to “residents to take time … to recognize older adults and the people who serve and support them as powerful and vital citizens who greatly contribute to the community.”