This year, UnitedHealthcare, in collaboration with the Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association (GAPNA), released the ninth edition of America’s Health Rankings 2021 Senior Report. The report, which focuses on the wellbeing of the older population, looks at two dozen different public health databases and takes into account 49 measures of health such as social and economic factors, physical environments, clinical care received, behavioral and personal health choices, and health outcomes.
The report was updated due to the size of the older population. Senior demographics show that the United States currently has more than 54 million citizens over the age of 65. By 2050, one in five people will be over the age of 65, meaning the senior population will represent more than 20 percent of the country’s total population. Looking at these statistics, UnitedHealthcare and GAPNA felt it important to look at the nation’s health on a state-by-state level to determine how to best help the aging population live a healthier life.
The 2021 Senior Report, which gives pre-pandemic statistics, shows that while West Virginia is facing challenges related to the health of its older residents, the Mountain State is improving and even excelling in some areas.
Lootpress was able to speak with Rhonda Randall, DO, executive vice president & chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare Employer & Individual, who further broke down the report’s key findings and discussed what can be done to address the success and challenges facing the health of West Virginia residents.
Nationally, Randall says the United States faired well but also saw some unfortunate rises in drug-related deaths, suicide, and frequent mental distress in seniors aged 65 or older.
Key National Findings
- Drug-related death increase 39 percent (9.4 thousand)
- Suicide increased three percent (27,000) from 2014 to 2016
- Frequent mental distress increased 11 percent (4.2 million) from 2016 to 2019. Before the pandemic, the risk of social isolation in any given state was correlated with higher rates of frequent mental distress; however, the report shows that seniors with access to high-speed internet before the pandemic felt less socially isolated.
Prior to the pandemic, seniors across the country experienced improvements in clinical care factors including a 13 percent increase in geriatric providers, as well as a six percent increase in flu vaccinations among seniors between 2017 and 2019.
Health improvements for older adults were not experienced equally across the country, with populations in rural states and certain racial and ethnic populations facing greater challenges.
The 2021 Senior Report shows that West Virginia has low rankings in several areas.
Key West Virginia Findings
- West Virginia ranks 47th in the country when it comes to access to care, and has a high prevalence of frequent physical distress
- Among senior populations, there is a low prevalence of exercise, and the state ranks 49th for obesity rates among those 65 and older
- West Virginia ranks 49th in the country when it comes to social support and engagement for senior populations (Social support and community engagement are critical indicators of social and economic health).
Although the state ranks low in these areas, Randall says she can see improvement. West Virginia still ranks last in the number of seniors who have had teeth extracted; however, that number went down 22 percent from 2014 to 2018. Additionally, the state ranked 49th in having access to high-speed internet, but that access increased 15 percent from 2016 to 2019, meaning West Virginia sits just under 70 percent in senior households with access to high-speed broadband.
“West Virginia still has a ways to go, but it’s encouraging to see progress,” Randall stated. “There’s a lot to be learned from states that do well in comparison. We need to look at what are the greatest challenges in term of health in West Virginia and what is holding West Virginia back from being higher ranking.”
West Virginia also saw some positive rankings. The state ranked number one in the nation for a low percentage of adults with excessive drinking and number one in the nation for a low percentage of seniors who severe housing problems. West Virginia found itself in the top half of the ranking for offering SNAP and did well in the number of flu vaccinations given to seniors.
According to Randall, it will take the work of policymakers, public health officials, health care organizations, communities and individuals to get the nation seeing upward trends on all 49 measures.
“There’s no one single solution. It’s going to take a combination of individuals making the decision to make small changes to their lives. We need to be aligned and engaged in the right conversations…”
Randall stated that while most people think weight loss is the golden ticket to ensuring senior health, that is not the case. Other factors such as smoking, sleeping, physical activity, and healthy eating are also important.
If the nation- and West Virginia- can continue to work toward these goals, Randall believes improvement will continue over the next several years.
The 2021 Senior Report is special in that it not only helps determine the health of seniors now but it also gives healthcare professionals an idea of how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect these numbers.
“This provides for us a really good baseline to understand what challenges we are facing and the success we are enjoying and make projections with what we’ve seen over the last 18 months,” Randall said.
The full 2021 Senior Report can be read here.