America is an aging society, said John W. Rowe, MD, professor of Health Policy and Aging at Columbia University and president of the International Association for Gerontology and Geriatrics. Life expectancy in the U.S. has risen from 70 years of age in 1960 to 79 years of age in 2016 (and the gender gap in life expectancy has also narrowed).
“The aging of American society is a result of the baby boom and that roughly 10,000 baby boomers are turning 65 every day," Dr. Rowe said. In addition to the baby boomers, advances in medicine are allowing for longer lives, while decreases in birth rates have meant fewer young Americans.
Many other countries are also combating this problem — Japan, Italy, Greece and Germany have the highest percentage of those 65 and older. However, health complications and financial burdens hit Americans the hardest, as our healthcare system isn't optimized for efficient delivery of care to older adults.
In a report for the National Academy of Medicine's Vital Directions initiative, Dr. Rowe and colleagues from other leading institutions explored the nuances of America's aging society and provided guidance on how the U.S. healthcare system could better provide for them. Dr. Rowe said that the problems with the system are multifaceted.
“We've done a lot right, but we have some gaps," Dr. Rowe explained. One gap he identified is in the models of care used to manage people with chronic disease and a lack of community resources for keeping individuals without acute problems out of the hospital. Another is in the workforce, where there's a major deficiency in geriatric specialists and long-term care workers, and finally, a nationwide deficiency in adequate end-of-life care.
Fortunately, Rowe said, we're not at a total loss. Medical schools are providing better training in geriatric medicine for those who decide to pursue it, and both health systems and health insurers are showing more interest in providing for Medicare beneficiaries. There has also been increased research in the diseases and medication effects that are common in older people.
But will it be enough?