(The writer is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Mark Miller
CHICAGO, Sept 7 (Reuters) - Which nations are doing the best job adapting to their aging populations?
Japan has the healthiest seniors. Spain gets top marks for supportive relatives and friends. In Norway, income inequality among older people is the lowest in the world.
How about the United States?
A new global aging index places it among the top five nations, alongside Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan. But our performance in most of the index categories suggests much work remains.
The Hartford Index, funded by The John A. Hartford Foundation, was developed by researchers at Columbia University and the University of Southern California. Previous studies comparing retirement across nations have focused mainly on economic and financial measures. But this one takes a wide view, examining data for 30 countries in five areas: productivity and engagement, well-being, equity, cohesion and security.
The categories are important to consider - they reflect the researchers’ consensus on the factors that contribute to a successful environment for aging.
“There are many elements beyond economic measures that are important,” said Dr. John Rowe, a professor at the Columbia University school of public health who led the research team.
The United States, despite ranking in the top five, receives decidedly mixed grades. It ranks No. 1 for “productivity and engagement,” which considers labor force participation rates, effective retirement ages and time spent volunteering.
We also get good marks for strong relationships among generations. But our rankings are mediocre-to-poor in categories measuring health, financial security and income inequality.
The index offers a lens into the future, Rowe says, because European countries are further along the aging curve. “After World War II the U.S. had a baby boom, but western Europe had a baby bust - fertility rates fell sharply because their economies were weak while countries worked to recover from the war,” he said. As a result, Europe aged ahead of the United States.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the U.S. 65-and-over population will nearly double over the next three decades, from 48 million to 88 million by 2050. But worldwide, the older population will more than double, to 1.6 billion by 2050 - and the U.S. population will stay younger than in other countries. The largest share of older people will be in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan in 2050, according to the bureau.
The Hartford index performance on financial security is especially worrisome. The United States ranks 19th among 30 countries in this category, which looks primarily at income of the 65-plus population. It uses a straightforward measure called poverty risk - the share of a nation’s older population below a certain income threshold. For example, if a country’s median income is $40,000, a senior with income of $20,000 would be considered impoverished.
It also assesses food security - the proportion of older people who are able to buy the food they need. Top performers were Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain.
The index ranks the United States 16th for well-being - an important gauge of health, not just from the perspective of longevity, but healthy life expectancy, as calculated by the average number of years a person age 65 can expect to live without disability.
“What’s important is adding life to years, not years to life,” Rowe says. “Policies that are embedded in good health-care systems on prevention and geriatrically competent care will decrease disability rates.”
Top performers in this category, along with Japan, are Switzerland, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and France.
On equity, a measure of the gaps in well-being and economic security between the haves and have-nots, the United States ranks 21st, reflecting wider U.S. income inequality compared with other countries.
The United States scores better for cohesion, which aims to measure tension across generations, and social connectedness. We rank fifth in this category, reflecting the number of people who report having relatives or friends they can count on, the percent of people who say they trust their neighbors and intergenerational wealth transfers.
Most encouraging is the U.S. performance on productivity and engagement. Our workers are staying on the job longer and finding volunteer opportunities at higher rates than in many western European nations.
We could do even better in this category. Efforts to engage older Americans for a range of volunteer efforts are gaining ground (reut.rs/2w3epzD), but need greater support.
“We may be doing better than other countries on volunteering, but we haven’t done as well as we could,” says Rowe. (Editing by Lauren Young and Dan Grebler)