Golden years shorter, sicker in the South

ATLANTA — If you’re 65 and living in Hawaii, here’s some good news: Odds are you’ll live another 21 years. And for all but five of those years, you’ll likely be in pretty good health.

Hawaii tops the charts in the government’s first state-by-state look at how long Americans age 65 can expect to live, on average, and how many of those remaining years will be healthy ones.

Retirement-age Mississippians fared worst, with only about 17 ½ more years remaining and nearly seven of them in poorer health.

U.S. life expectancy has been growing steadily for decades, and is now nearly 79 for newborns. The figures released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate life expectancy for people 65 years old, and what portion will be free of the illnesses and disabilities suffered late in life.

“What ultimately matters is not just the length of life but the quality of life,” said Matt Stiefel, who oversees population health research for Kaiser Permanente.

The World Health Organization keeps “healthy life expectancy” statistics on nearly 200 countries, and the numbers are used to determine the most sensible ages to set retirement and retirement benefits. But the measure is still catching on in the United States; the CDC study is the first to make estimates for all 50 states.

Overall, Americans who make it to 65 have about 19 years of life ahead of them, including nearly 14 in relatively good health, the CDC estimated.

But the South and parts of the Midwest clearly had lower numbers. That’s not a surprise, experts said.

Southern states tend to have higher rates of smoking, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a range of other illnesses. They also have problems that affect health, like less education and more poverty.

These are issues that build up over a lifetime, so it’s doubtful that moving to Hawaii after a lifetime in the South will suddenly give you more healthy years, they said.

After Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia and Alabama had the lowest numbers for both life expectancy and healthy life expectancy. States with the best numbers included Florida — a magnet for healthy retirees — as well as Connecticut and Minnesota.

The estimates were made using 2007 through 2009 data from the census, death certificates and telephone surveys that asked people to describe their health. The CDC’s Paula Yoon cautioned not to make too much of the differences between states. Results could have been swayed, for example, by how people in different states interpreted and answered the survey questions.

Other findings:

— Nationally, women at 65 can expect nearly 15 more years of healthy life. Men that age can expect about 13 years.

— Blacks fared much worse than whites. They could expect 11 years of healthy life, compared to more than 14 for whites.

The CDC report makes “painfully clear” the disparities in the health of whites and blacks in their final years, said Ellen Meara, a health economist at Dartmouth College.

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