A declining number of Americans over 50 say that they’re in good overall health, while obesity and lack of health insurance continue to rise among American seniors, according to a report released Monday by AARP.

The annual report shows some modest improvements in seniors’ rates of physical activity and access to prescription drug coverage. But overall, the group paints a picture of seniors’ health care it calls “mixed” in part because of declining insurance rates and rising obesity.

Looking back over the last decade, economic indictors show some improvement in the well-being of people over 50, although progress, where it existed, was often slow and uneven, says the report.

Less than 47 percent of U.S. residents over 50 described their overall health as “very good” or “excellent” in the survey. The number of adults aged 50-64 reporting "very good" or "excellent" overall health fell from 54.5 percent in 2001 to 53.9 percent in 2002. Thirty-two percent of seniors 75 and older reported "very good" or "excellent" health status, down nearly a percentage point from the year before.

The percent who engage in physical activity was slightly more popular among the 50-plus population in 2002 than in 1998, though still only one-quarter of Americans over 50 participate in regular exercise, the report shows. It also shows that the increase was entirely due to an increase among the 75-plus age group.

At the same time, just 35.4 percent of the entire over-50 population was not either overweight or obese in 2002, down more than 4 percent from 1998. The group described the trend as a “disturbing drop” that “suggests a looming health problem” for the nation’s seniors and mirrors the unhealthy trend toward obesity in the overall population.

Most Can Afford Health Care

Nearly all seniors were able to afford medical care when needed in 2002, though rates were lowest among those under 64 and not yet eligible for Medicare. The percent unable to afford medical care declined, and the percent of Medicare beneficiaries, including both disabled and those aged 65 or older with drug coverage, increased since 1995.

Ninety-four percent of adults 50-64 could afford their care that year, though the number was down a half percent since 2001, the report found.

While 97 percent of those aged 65-74 and 98 percent of those older than 75 were able to afford medical care, the report says this may point to the advantages of being able to depend on Medicare for health coverage.

"Millions of persons under age 65, however, lack any health insurance, which creates potential financial barriers to receiving medical care," says the report.

Seniors were also slightly more likely to access prescription drugs in 2001 than in 2000, though 43 percent of those 65 and older lacked drug insurance. Medicare is set to begin paying for part of beneficiaries’ drug costs in January. The program, known as Part D, is projected to cover one-third of the average senior’s drug costs, though low-income elderly will get more benefits.

The report also showed that seniors of all ages are increasingly less likely to show signs of depression, the most common form of mental illness among U.S. adults. Approximately 85 percent of the over-50 population was free of depression symptoms in 2002, a 1.3 percent improvement since 1997, according to federal statistics reported by AARP.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: “The State of 50+ America”, AARP, April 25, 2005.