Study of California Seniors Shows Those in Rural Areas Are Most Unhealthy

June 14, 2011
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California's more than half a million rural elders are far more likely to be overweight or obese, physically inactive and food insecure than their suburban counterparts, according to a new policy brief (PDF) from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

All three conditions are risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and repeated falls—conditions that are also more prevalent among rural elders.

Approximately 710,000 Californians aged 65 and over live in the countryside, which is almost one-fifth of all older adults in the state. Researchers found these seniors experience unique challenges to healthy living, including a lack of sidewalks, street lights, and transportation services; and poor access to healthy food outlets, parks, exercise facilities and healthcare sites. California's rural areas are also challenged by a dearth of physicians and other primary care providers, compelling many seniors to travel long distances to seek care.

Using data from the 2007 California Health Interview Survey, researchers found:

Older adults in rural areas are more often overweight or obese (61.3 percent) than their urban (57.3 percent) and suburban (54.0 percent) counterparts.

One in five rural elders do not participate in either moderate or vigorous physical activity in their leisure time.

One in five low-income older adults in rural settings report that they cannot consistently afford enough food to last the month. This rate is about twice that of low-income suburban adults.

Rural adults also have higher rates of heart disease and repeated falls and are more likely to be low-income than suburban older adults, a factor that exacerbates many health conditions.

The study’s authors recommend that policymakers consider a range of strategies to make rural environments more senior-friendly. Other recommendations include the use of “universal design” principles in all public contracting, the promotion of federal subsidies and assistance programs to rural grocery stores and other health food outlets, expanded transportation services and better incentives for primary care providers who work in rural areas.

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Policy brief: The Health Status and Unique Health Challenges of Rural Older Adults in California(PDF)