COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PAUL DOWNEY

California seniors' health ranks 18th in US, report says

Malnourished seniors come in all shapes and forms.

The first image that comes to mind is probably an emaciated senior — and, unfortunately, there are many in California. But obesity is also a form of malnourishment.

Almost 1 million California seniors are obese, according to a new report from United Health Foundation on senior health. An equal number are physically inactive, according to the findings, putting their health in jeopardy.

Overall, California seniors rank as 18th healthiest in the country, far behind Minnesota, Hawaii and New Hampshire, the top three. The states with the worst health are Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky.

“It’s time to shift our focus from how long Americans are living, to how well we’re living,” says Reed Tuckson, M.D., senior medical adviser for United Health Foundation. “We want this report to encourage seniors and the people in their lives to be more active, to talk about end-of-life plans and to live the best we all can.”

The comprehensive, state-by-state, report used 34 measures of senior health and drew data from more than 12 government agencies and leading research organizations to create a focused survey for measuring senior health. The Foundation commissioned the report to stimulate discussion and to motivate action.

It is also a significant call for action to address unhealthy practices. Nationally, more than 35 percent of seniors surveyed for the report have four or more chronic health conditions, one in four is obese and 28 percent are physically inactive. Only 60 percent received a flu vaccine in the last year.

The impact on the community is significant, Tuckson says.

“Chronic illness such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease not only affect seniors’ overall health but places pressure on families, caregivers and our health care system.”

Money and health are also related. Two-thirds of California seniors with an income greater than $75,000 report their health is very good or excellent, compared to only 28 percent of seniors with an income less than $25,000.

Because lower-income seniors are more likely to access more expensive health care options — such as the emergency room rather than their primary care physician — the economic burden on our health care system is profound.

The report highlights some positives in California over the past year: Smoking rates are low, seniors are more physically active than in other parts of the country and hospital deaths decreased by 10 percent.

This data gives us something to build upon, as California’s senior population is projected to grow to about 10.6 million by 2030. While we all ultimately have personal responsibility for our own health, many seniors lack both the knowledge and resources to live a healthy lifestyle.

That is why it is imperative for communities — including government, nonprofits, for-profits and individuals — to unite around wellness initiatives that keep seniors healthy.

New medications and treatment are a critical part of the puzzle. But so are other safety-net services like Serving Seniors’ congregate and home-delivered meals program, which serves more than 2,200 meals daily to frail San Diego seniors.

Proper nutrition can be as important as medication in keeping a senior healthy. Studies show three of the most common chronic conditions in elderly patients — high cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes — could have been prevented or significantly reduced by access to a proper diet.

Access to meals can also save billions in future Medicare and Medi-Cal costs because keeping a senior in his or her home, healthy, is far cheaper than hospitals and nursing homes. For the cost of one day in a nursing home, a senior can receive meals from Serving Seniors for a year – an outstanding return on investment.

Thanks to the many generous San Diegans who make that investment so seniors can eat properly. Congress, it is time for you to do your part — it’s a wise use of tax dollars.



Paul Downey is the president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty. Learn more at www.servingseniors.org.

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