Best (and Worst) States for Healthy Retirement

The number of senior citizens living in the United States is expected to double in the next 25 years. The aging baby boom generation and improved medical technology will lead to significant increased demand for health care, palliative care, and other industries specifically tailored to the aging population.

Some states are likely better prepared than others for the growing elderly population. In these states, senior citizens tend to live much longer, healthier, more enjoyable lives than in other states. Based on data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the health of retirement age adults in each of the 50 states.

Being more prone to disease and injury, older Americans need to take care of their health even more than younger Americans. For example, regular physical activity is important for the young and old to prevent a variety of health conditions, but it has additional importance for senior citizens because it is crucial in reducing the risk of falls, according to the CDC. Falling is the leading cause of fatal and non-fatal injuries for the elderly, and 31.7% of older Americans report falling and injuring themselves each year.

Similarly, obesity is one of the leading risk factors of life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and hypertension across the population as a whole, and these conditions are more common among senior citizens. Eating healthy and exercising are, for this reason, perhaps more important for senior citizens.

As individuals age, the risks and consequences of certain diseases and illnesses increase. For example, the CDC reports that between 80% to 90% of all flu-related deaths occur in people 65 and older. The elderly are also at greater risk of certain cancers.

Since older Americans are more vulnerable in many ways, it is important they receive preventative medical treatments and screenings. If proper precautions are taken, the seasonal flu can be preventable and certain cancers can be caught early enough that treatment is more likely to be successful. Nationwide, 66.9% of retirement age adults have had a flu shot in the past year, and 73.1% have received adequate colon cancer screening. These rates vary dramatically between states.

The CDC defines frequent mental distress as feeling in poor mental health at least 14 days of the last 30. Poor mental health is closely tied to unhealthy behaviors. Though the elderly are less prone to mental distress than younger age groups, poor mental health may take a greater toll on older individuals. According to the CDC, older adults who experience frequent mental distress are less likely to lead physically healthy lives. Nationwide, 6.9% of adults 65 and older experience frequent mental distress. This share varies greatly by state from as few as 3.9% of seniors in Iowa to as many as 10.5% in West Virginia.

In the 25 states with the smallest shares of elderly residents reporting frequent mental distress, senior citizens are more likely to be physically active, more likely to have a healthy diet, less likely to be obese, and less likely to smoke than the typical elderly American.

While life expectancy was not part of our analysis, the conditions that lead to healthier lives for elderly Americans also appear to lead to longer lives. The life expectancies in the 10 least healthy states for retirees is below the national average of 78.5 years. Similarly, the 10 states with the healthiest retirees have above average life expectancy.

In order to determine the states with the healthiest elderly population, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from the CDC’s report “The State of Aging and Health in America 2013.” The report, based primarily on 2010 data, is the most recent publication on the subject from the CDC. We ranked each state in 17 measures of health behaviors and outcomes among Americans 65 and older and averaged all 17 ranks to determine how healthy are senior citizens in each state. We also considered life expectancy by state as provided by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Life expectancy was not a component of the overall rank calculation.

These are the states with the healthiest and least healthy retirees.

The Worst States for Healthy Retirement

5. Nevada
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 37.7% (22nd lowest)
> Pct. 65+ obese: 21.8% (6th lowest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 59.3% (the lowest)
> Life expectancy: 77.9 years (17th lowest)

For elderly residents, preventative care and screening is essential to maintaining good health. Senior citizens in Nevada are among the least likely in the country to use preventative medicine. Just 59.3% of senior citizens in Nevada received a flu vaccine in the past year, and just 61.9% received colon cancer screening, each the lowest proportions in the country.

4. Kentucky
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 40.5% (13th highest)
> Pct. 65+ obese: 27.0% (9th highest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 67.7% (25th highest)
> Life expectancy: 75.7 years (6th lowest)

Kentucky’s elderly population is among the least healthy in the country. Senior citizens report feeling physically unhealthy nearly 7 days each month, the most in the country. Kentucky residents 65 and older are also among the most likely in the country to be obese, to smoke, and to lead sedentary lifestyles. Unsurprisingly, the state’s life expectancy is just 75.7 years, one of the lowest in the country.

3. Alabama
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 40.2% (14th highest)
> Pct. 65+ obese: 26.3% (12th highest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 63.2% (5th lowest)
> Life expectancy: 75.2 years (2nd lowest)

Life expectancy in Alabama is only 75.2 years, the second lowest of any state. Shorter lives are partially attributable to unhealthy behaviors among the state’s elderly residents. Less than one-third of retirement age adults in the state eat fruit at least twice daily, a far smaller share than the nearly 42% of Americans 65 and older who do. Alabama’s elderly are also far less likely to be physically active than most older Americans. Only 64.9% of the state’s older residents are physically active, far fewer than the 68.6% national figure.

2. Mississippi
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 43.9% (4th highest)
> Pct. 65+ obese: 27.3% (7th highest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 66.1% (15th lowest)
> Life expectancy: 74.5 years (the lowest)

As a state with among the least healthy retirees in the country, Mississippi residents can expect to live to just 74.5 years, the lowest life expectancy in the United States. Mississippi has an elderly obesity rate of 27.3%, one of the highest in the country, and residents 65 and older are more likely to smoke, eat poorly, and live sedentary lifestyles than older Americans nationwide. Obesity and unhealthy behavior can lead to debilitating injuries and illnesses, and 43.9% of Mississippi senior citizens have a disability of some kind, the fourth highest share in the country.

1. West Virginia
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 41.8% (7th highest)
> Pct. 65+ obese : 25.9% (15th highest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 66.4% (18th lowest)
> Life expectancy: 75.4 years (3rd lowest)

Based on a number of measures of health behaviors and outcomes, West Virginia has the least healthy retirees of any state. Physically active elderly adults are less likely to experience frequent physical distress, and in West Virginia, nearly 40% of state residents 65 and older do not engage in even moderate physical activity, the highest share of any state in the country. With low physical activity rates, retirement age adults in the state report an average of 6.9 physically unhealthy days a month, far more than the national average of 5.4 days for the age group.

Life expectancy in West Virginia is especially low at 75 years, roughly three years less than life expectancy nationwide.

The Best States for Retirement

5. Wisconsin
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 33.0% (3rd lowest)
> Pct. 65+ obese: 24.0% (21st lowest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 68.4% (21st highest)
> Life expectancy: 79.3 years (14th highest)

Falls are the leading cause of both fatal and non-fatal injuries among elderly Americans. A high fall rate in a given state can also indicate poor physical health among area seniors. Harmful falls in Wisconsin, however, are relatively rare. Only 23.6% of state residents 65 and older have sustained an injury from a fall in the last year, far fewer than the comparable 31.7% national rate.

Unhealthy habits are also relatively rare among the state’s elderly population. Only 6.7% of retirement age adults in the state are smokers, one the lowest elderly smoking rates of any U.S. state.

4. Minnesota
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 34.4% (6th lowest)
> Pct. 65+ obese: 24.3% (23rd lowest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 72.0% (5th highest)
> Life expectancy: 80.4 years (3rd highest)

People who report frequent mental distress are more likely to exhibit certain unhealthy habits. In Minnesota, only 4.2% of adults 65 and older report frequent mental distress, the third smallest share of any state. Despite the relative scarcity of poor mental health, the smoking rate, obesity rate, and physical activity rate among those 65 and older in the state are roughly in line with the nation.

Still, in many other ways, Minnesota’s elderly are far healthier than most older Americans. Exactly 98.0% of people being treated for high blood pressure take their medication, the highest rate of any state. Additionally, about 72% of the state’s elderly get vaccinated for the flu each year, one of the highest rates of any state in the country.

3. Massachusetts
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 33.5% (5th lowest)
> Pct. 65+ obese: 22.9% (13th lowest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 72.4% (3rd highest)
> Life expectancy: 80.2 years (5th highest)

Of all elderly Americans, those living in Massachusetts are some of the most likely to receive preventative medical treatment and screening. The state ranks among the best in several measures of preventative care and screening, including flu vaccination rates, pneumonia vaccination rates, and colon cancer screening rates. In the Bay State, 89.9% of women 65 and older have had a mammogram in the past two years, the largest share of any state in the country.

Perhaps because the state’s oldest residents are more likely to seek preventative medical treatment, people in Massachusetts tend to live longer than most Americans. Life expectancy in the state is 80.2 years, more than a year and a half longer than the 78.5 years expectancy nationwide.

2. Vermont
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 36.8% (13th lowest)
> Pct. 65+ obese: 23.4% (16th lowest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 71.5% (8th highest)
> Life expectancy: 79.5 years (12th highest)

Older Vermonters are more likely than most older Americans to lead relatively healthy lives. Not only are they are more likely to eat the recommended amount of vegetables, but also 49.3% of them eat fruit at least twice a day, the largest share of any state. The state’s elderly are also relatively active. Only 28.6% of elderly Vermonters lead completely sedentary lives, a considerably smaller share than the 31.4% of older Americans.

In addition to some good habits, many seniors in the Green Mountain State also abstain from some bad ones. The 5.8% smoking rate among retirement age adults in the state is well below the 8.3% nationwide rate.

1. Connecticut
> Pct. 65+ w/ disability: 32.9% (2nd lowest)
> Pct. 65+ obese: 22.0% (7th lowest)
> Flu vaccine in past year, 65+: 72.4% (3rd highest)
> Life expectancy: 80.4 years (2nd highest)

The elderly living in Connecticut are arguably more likely to lead long, healthy lives than those in any other state. Connecticut also has the second longest life expectancy of any state, at 80.4 years, just 0.2 years behind Washington. Also, just 32.9% of state senior citizens have a disability, compared to 37.9% of all elderly Americans.

It is likely the state’s 65 and older residents are relatively healthier because of their health habits, including taking advantage of preventative medicine. Connecticut senior citizens are more likely than their peers nationwide to get the flu vaccine, mammograms and colon screening.