A report on aging in Los Angeles County, the nation’s largest county and one of its most diverse, shows wide disparities in life expectancy among different ethnic groups and neighborhoods.
Overall, the life expectancy for Los Angeles County residents was about 82 years in 2011, up from nearly 76 in 1991, according to the report by University of Southern California’s Roybal Institute on Aging. Much of that can be attributed to drops in coronary heart disease, strokes and lung cancer, the report noted.
But African Americans can expect to live to an average of about 76 years whereas the average for Asians and Pacific Islanders approaches 86 years, the report said. And residents who have reached the age of 50 in the more affluent western part of the county are expected to live about five years longer than those in largely poor South Los Angeles.
Similarly, researchers found stark differences among ethnic groups when it comes to chronic disease. Latinos in L.A. County aged 50 or older have nearly double the rate of diabetes as whites, and older African Americans have a much higher rate of hypertension than other ethnic groups.
The report presents a detailed and comprehensive picture of the challenges in caring for an aging population in a county where about half of the residents 50 and older are foreign born and more than two-thirds say they do not speak English very well. Researchers said they hope the data will guide county and state leaders as they seek to improve the quality of life for older people.
Los Angeles County’s disparities also mirror national trends and can provide a glimpse of the challenges ahead around the country. The number of county residents over 50 is expected to increase by 27 percent by 2020 and the number over 65 is expected to grow by 43 percent. Most of the increase in California is anticipated to be among Latinos.
One of the findings that most disturbed researchers was the difference in the number of licensed medical professionals in communities across the county, researchers said. In South Los Angeles, for instance, fewer than 50 doctors are licensed to practice per 100,000 residents, compared to more than 1,000 doctors in the western part of the county.
“The distribution of these health care resources is heavily concentrated in the affluent areas of Los Angeles County, stunningly so,” said William Vega, executive director of the Roybal Institute.
Overall, Vega said, there aren’t enough health care professionals to cope with the growing population of seniors, about 20 percent of whom say their health is fair or poor. Even with Medicare coverage for the elderly and expansion of insurance for younger people under the nation’s Affordable Care Act, about 25 percent of adults still lack regular care, the report said.
That leads some seniors to turn to hospitals for primary care and chronic disease management, Vega said. The vast majority of emergency room visits in 2013 for those over 50 was for high blood pressure.
The disparities in chronic disease prevalence and in the distribution of health professionals is an “emerging crisis” and is not limited to Los Angeles County, said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat who represents much of the southeast part of the county.
“It exists throughout the United States, where health care professionals are retiring in greater numbers than new workers are entering the profession,” she said.
Roybal-Allard, a daughter of the late Congressman Edward R. Roybal, for whom the aging institute was named, said policymakers are not investing enough resources in senior centers and other programs for the elderly.
“By any measure, Los Angeles, our state and our nation are dangerously unprepared for the impact of our demographic shift, inadequate workforce and the many social and health challenges it presents,” she said.
The report was produced as part of the county’s healthy aging initiative, a collaboration of researchers from USC, UCLA and public health organizations.