According to statistics the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last week, 65-year-old Alabama residents from 2007 and 2009 had a projected lifespan of an additional 17.6 years — shorter than their counterparts in all states but Mississippi and West Virginia, where life expectancy was 17.5 years. Some health experts say the state's shorter lifespan for seniors is due to unhealthy lifestyles combined with a higher percentage of low-income minorities and lack of health care access. However, area medical care providers, senior services professionals and anti-poverty groups are working to reverse the situation through education and health care policy change.
The statistics show that of the 17.6 more years 65-year-old Alabamians were expected to live, just 11 years were estimated to be healthy and free of serious medical problems. In contrast, Hawaii, the state with the highest life expectancy in the report, 65-year-old residents there were estimated to live another 21.3 years, 16 years of which were expected to be healthy.
Also, the statistics show 65-year-old Alabama males would live an average of 16.1 more years, while women would live an estimated 18.9 years.
Dr. Richard Allman, a geriatrician and director of the Birmingham VA Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center and director of the Center for Aging at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said he was not surprised by Alabama's ranking. Allman said Alabama leads most states with high rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and smoking, all of which contribute to shorter lifespans.
"Alabama and many Southern states are leading the charge in terms of that epidemic," Allman said of unhealthy lifestyles.
Belva Durham, project director for the senior services centers operated by the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission based in Anniston, said the senior centers in the area offer various services to improve the health and lifestyles of elderly residents.
"We have dietitians who work and give nutritional analysis of the meals we provide," Durham said. "And we provide through our agency nutritional education like tips on how to decrease salt intake, things like that."
Durham said health screenings are offered at the centers along with fitness contests that track seniors' physical activity each day, whether it be walking or gardening.
"The idea is to get them more active," she said.
Allman said the racial makeup of Alabama, which has a higher percentage of black residents than many other states, is also a reason why the state has such a low lifespan rating for seniors.
"Blacks have a much lower life expectancy than whites and that brings the average down," Allman said.
The statistics show white Alabamians who reach 65 years of age were estimated to live another 17.8 years, compared to 16.8 years for blacks in the same age group.
Allman said a high poverty rate and lack of access to care is also a contributing factor for the state's ranking.
"Improving access to health care to all citizens would help improve health in our communities," Allman said.
Jim Carnes, spokesman for Alabama Arise, a non-partisan group that advocates for low-income residents, said the state's recent law to reform its Medicaid program will help improve access to care.
Alabama's Medicaid reform law will shift the state's Medicaid services from a payment-for-treatment system to a managed-care model and allow the state to establish contracts with private regional care organizations to provide services at a fixed cost. The goals of the reform are to provide improved care for Medicaid patients while lowering costs.
Medicaid provides health care services mainly for low-income children, nursing home residents and disabled patients.
"Lack of access to care is a huge problem and Medicaid reform doesn't solve the problem, but we feel it lays the groundwork for solving the problem," Carnes said.
Carnes said Alabama Arise's hope is that the reform will lead to Alabama expanding Medicaid to more people with money offered through the Affordable Care Act health care reform law. States were given the option of accepting three years’ worth of free funding to expand their Medicaid programs, an option Alabama declined.
"Gov. Robert Bentley said last fall he would not consider expansion until Medicaid was fixed," Carnes said. "We feel he got what he asked for and now is the time to move forward on expansion."
Robin Bonner, a nurse and co-owner of Family and Friends Adult Day Health Care in Oxford, said access to care is a problem in the area.
"Many people who are over 65 are on a limited income and often have to choose between getting medicine or food," Bonner said.
Bonner said insurance companies don't cover businesses like hers, which provides daily care, activities and social interaction for seniors.
"It's crazy because it's cheaper than being in a nursing home," Bonner said.
Bonner said her facility offers nutritious meals with fruits and vegetables and keeps its visitors active every day.
"We do a range of motion exercises to keep those muscles moving and have them play mind games," she said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.