By Paul Recer
WASHINGTON — Americans are not only living longer but also more vigorously than ever. Fewer people over 65 require nursing home care and more are living on their own, with little or no outside help, a new study shows.
More than eight out of 10 Americans over the age of 65 are now able to take care of themselves in routine activities of daily living, an 8.8 percent increase since 1982, the study says.
"The likelihood of the elderly being vigorous is higher now than ever before," said Kenneth Manton, a Duke University researcher and co-author of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "The active life expectancy is increasing as well as life expectancy itself."
Manton said that improved medical care, diet, exercise and public health advances made in the past decades have all contributed to a more vigorous and healthy old age. He said older Americans tend to take better care of themselves than ever before and are taking advantage of new medical knowledge about how to stay healthy.
As an example, Manton said the use of hormone replacement therapy has increased steadily since 1982, and more than 10 million women are now taking the therapy. This treatment substantially reduces the incidence of osteoporosis, a brittle bone disease that is a major cause of disability.
He said advances in heart disease prevention and care are helping Americans remain healthy longer. Manton said the elderly now are more likely to treat high cholesterol, have bypass or angioplasty procedures, or to control high blood pressure, all important ways to delay disability from heart disease.
The study analyzed data on the elderly, chronically disabled from 1982 to 1999 and found a steady decline. In 1982, about 26.2 percent of older Americans were disabled. In 1999, the percentage had dropped to 19.7, about two out of every 10 people over age 65.
Disability is defined in the study as impairments for three months or more in instrumental activities of daily living (such as cooking, cleaning and shopping) or in activities of daily living (self-care activities such as bathing, dressing and eating).
Improvements in the rates of both classes of activities are reflected in a declining population in America’s nursing homes, said Manton. In 1982, 6.2 percent of the nation’s elderly were in nursing homes, while in 1999 the percentage had dropped to 3.4 percent.
Chronically disabled older Americas totaled 7.1 million in 1982, the study found. By 1999, the actual number of disabled had declined to 7 million, even though the elderly population in the U.S. went up more than 32 percent. If the 1982 rate had continued, the number of disabled would have reached about 9.3 million, the study found.
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