The Very Best -- And Worst -- U.S. States For Older People

Study looked for biggest jumps in satisfaction between young and older.

It looks like our longing for restorative tropical vacations has a point -- if you're 55 or older, for the highest level of well-being in the United States you should head straight to the Hawaiian Islands. And stay there.

It's no secret that sometimes the geography of where we live makes a difference for someone's well-being. But it's not just about pretty beaches and warm, salty air. Overall well-being is measured by purpose, finances, community, social life, and how you feel physically. In fact, Florida and California, even with so many coastal living opportunities, don't even make the top five because of other issues, like expense. Following Hawaii are Montana, South Dakota, Alaska and Iowa.

But we've got a wrench. Since those states also fared well for younger people, for the first time Gallup and Healthways, a well-being improvement company, created a well-being index to record which states have the biggest edge for those 55 and older and the rest of the population.

Delaware recorded the biggest difference between the two age groups, followed by Oregon. Iowa, which was one of the highest-ranked already, placed third in the difference between age groups.

Those three were followed by New Hampshire, Michigan, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Kansas, Florida and Arkansas.

Dan Witters, the research director of the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, says that well-being goes up when you cross 55, for some states more than others.

Those lists reflect the general well-being for the entire population, but there are some exceptions, Witters says. New Hampshire, Oregon and Connecticut are in the middle of the pack for the full adult population for their well-being but are much better for their older populations.

"If you're somebody over the age of 55, you can expect your well-being to get better wherever you are, but in particular in those states where the foundation is laid for a high well-being that doesn't exist elsewhere," Witters says. "Well-being is pretty good for those states at the top of the list, and what that probably reflects is a culture of well-being that exists there in particular for older Americans that doesn't exist elsewhere and pretty starkly contrasts with the states at the bottom of the list."

Well-being generally improves with income, and education is a close corollary as well, Witters says. The "purpose" category looks at whether people like what they do every day - in fact, I recently wrote that the best retirement plans come from fulfillment. That's about choosing the right career or path in life, at any age.

"Is what you are doing aligned with your natural aptitudes as a human being, and do you get to use your strengths in pursuit of that?" Witters asks. "Do you have goals that you are reaching? Do you have leaders that inspire you, and are you learning and growing?"

Now for the states who rated the lowest scores for older Americans, all states that also score lower for younger populations: West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma.

In several states, there was little difference in the ranking between younger and older adults. Those included Wyoming, Alaska, Oklahoma, Nevada, South Dakota, Maine, Vermont, California, and Texas.

As for why older adults have a higher sense of well-being than their younger counterparts, researchers say that's true because older adults have more satisfaction with their standard of living than younger people. Older Americans also worry less about money than their younger counterparts and have better access to health care, especially if they're on Medicare. Older adults are less likely to smoke and more likely to eat better. There's also a correlation between well-being and life expectancy, use of healthcare, onset of diseases among the population, employment, absenteeism, and obesity.

"Our research shows that older Americans who are thriving in well-being exercise far more, have less depression, and have lower rates of obesity and chronic illness," says Joy Powell, Market President at Healthways. She says there tends to be a valley between ages 45 and 55 in terms of that group's well-being. People are living longer, which means that that group is taking care of their parents in addition to their own children.

"What is interesting is that we see well-being start to go up at age 55 and continue to grow exponentially, especially when you get past 75," Powell says. "That's driven by a number of things. It can be any of the five elements that's measure related to well-being - purpose, social, financial, community, and physical."

In those states where well-being "pops" for older Americans, it comes down to financial well-being and managing wealth, living within your means, and financial security, Witters says. The other two are community and social well-being.

"Your community well-being is your attachment to where you live, your pride in it, feeling safe in it, and giving back to it," Witters says. "Social well-being is the love in your life -- family and friends and the positive energy you derive from that. It's making time for trips and vacations. If you look at the states that made the biggest jump from the middle-of-the-road states for overall population, but top 10 for the 55-plus group, most of that is driven by even greater jumps in financial, social, and community well-being."

As for physical well-being, that's about health and access to healthcare. The survey also computes obesity and asks questions about chronic conditions. People also discuss behaviors of exercise, smoking, good and bad eating habits, alcohol consumption, and drug use, Witters says. It's that category where you start to see why some states are at the bottom of the list. Obesity is higher and exercise lower in the lower-ranked states for the 55 and older group, he says. Another factor they found is that learning new and interesting things daily is a "real deficit for the 55-plus group" in those states.

"We find that chronic conditions are higher and clinical diagnosis of depression is high to the point they're exceeding their younger counterparts and in ways that are greater than what we find in other states," Witters says. "The other one I would call out is the smoking habits, which are high for the adult populations generally in those states but awful high for the 55-plus group. Smoking goes down quite a lot among older American compared to younger counterparts, but you still see pretty heavy smoking rates in those states."

See the complete report here.

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