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Study shows disparities in aging across state

More than three quarters of older adults in Massachusetts grapple with high blood pressure, and nearly 1 in 3 has been diagnosed with depression, according to a report to be released Friday that provides a first-of-its kind, in-depth look at about 100 health measures of each community.

Some regions of the state appear to be bastions for healthy aging, with relatively few seniors plagued by chronic health problems, while other areas are rife with challenges, according to the report and an interactive website commissioned by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Health Policy Forum at Brandeis University.

A number of small towns in Central and Western Massachusetts had a disproportionate share of seniors reporting no chronic conditions, the report shows, while several large cities in the southeastern part of the state have unusually high numbers of older residents with multiple health problems.

With the percentage of the population over 65 expected to significantly increase in Massachusetts and across the country — from 14 percent of the state’s residents in 2010 to 21 percent by 2030, according to a recent UMass report — foundation leaders hope the new community profiles will spur conversation and fresh ideas to promote healthy aging.


“It’s important for people to be talking about these issues, expanding coalitions, and thinking together,” said Ruth Palombo, the foundation’s senior health policy officer.

The report is slated to be presented Friday to government and business leaders, policymakers, and community advocates at a health conference in Newton.

Elizabeth Dugan, an associate gerontology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and one of the report’s authors, said they were surprised to find such large differences in health status across the state.

“It doesn’t follow a neat pattern, and we don’t have a good explanation for that yet,” Dugan said.

Typically, healthier populations are associated with affluence and more access to medical care and other services, yet these services are generally not as plentiful in rural areas of Central and Western Massachusetts.

The researchers plan to further study the issue.

Statewide, 8 percent of residents 65 and older did not report any chronic health problems.


In 23 communities, many of them rural towns outside Interstate 495, about 13 to 16 percent of these older residents said they have no chronic conditions.

By comparison, roughly 59 percent of older residents in Massachusetts report having four or more chronic health conditions, such as glaucoma and heart disease, with Fall River, New Bedford, Taunton, and Holyoke having the highest percentages.

The researchers combed US Census Bureau data, Medicare claims, and results of an annual telephone survey conducted by the state Department of Public Health to compile a detailed profile of each of the state’s 351 cities and towns, plus 16 neighborhoods in Boston.

They measured a wide array of factors, including smoking and obesity rates, alcohol consumption, levels of physical activity, and access to grocery stores, parks, and entertainment.

They also examined crime rates, percentages of residents who received regular dental and physical exams and cancer screenings, and the percentages who reported any one
of a list of illnesses from Alzheimer’s disease to prostate cancer.

In Brookline and Boston neighborhoods, the researchers found that while access to services that promote healthy aging is generally very good in most communities, the variations in health later in life are pronounced.

Older residents in Brookline, for instance, were healthier than the state average in 20 out of nearly 100 healthy aging measures.

At the other end of the spectrum, South Boston was worse than the state averages on 16 indicators, including cardiovascular disease, lung and colon cancers, and hospital readmissions.


Among notable statewide findings were the large differences in the percentages of adults, age 60 and over, who get their annual flu shot, compared to those who said they had received the one-time immunization for shingles, a painful, debilitating condition that typically attacks older people.

About 68 percent of older adults said they get an annual flu shot, while the state average for the shingles vaccine was only 15 percent.

Roughly 61 percent said they had been immunized for pneumonia.

Ann Hartstein, the state’s secretary of elder affairs, said that this data will help state leaders shape future education campaigns about immunizations and many other health programs and will be especially helpful for municipal leaders.

“If you have the local board of health take on giving pneumonia shots,” Hartstein said, “it’s much better access than if you have the state saying everyone should get a pneumonia shot.”

The report and interactive maps can be found on
the foundation’s website at www.mahealthyaging

Kay Lazar can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.