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Older Americans in 1990 were earning and spending significantly more than in 1980, even after adjusting for inflation, according to a new report on people 65 and older from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And income gains especially in the 65-to-74-year-old age group far outpaced the gains of the population under 65.The numbers tend to "support assertions of other analysts that we are seeing a `golden age of the golden year,' " BLS economist Pamela B. Hitschler said in the study, which appeared in the BLS Monthly Labor Review.

Incomes for households of people 65 to 74 were up 34 percent after inflation between 1980 and 1990, compared with a gain of 13 percent for those 75 and older but only 10 percent for those under 65.

One reason for the greater gains in the 65-to-74 group is that their lifetime earnings and contributions to pensions and Social Security were greater than of those 75 and older, according to the report.

Data used in the study were collected as part of the BLS's Consumer Expenditure Survey, which is used to determine the mix of products and services included in the monthly Consumer Price Index. In 1990, there were an estimated 20.08 million households of people who were 65 or older.

The biggest increase in spending by older consumers in the 1980s was for health insurance - Blue Cross, Blue Shield, HMOs and insurance supplements. But the greater spending on insurance apparently reduced the out-of-pocket spending for physician services and other medical care, according to the study.

In 1980, total health-care expenses accounted for 10 percent of the budget of those who were 65 and older. By 1990, they had grown to 12 percent. In the same period, spending on health insurance went from 32 percent of all health-care spending to 47 percent.

On the income side, Social Security payments made up the largest part - 44 percent - of older consumers' earnings. Wages and salaries remained the second-highest source of income in the decade, at 19 percent. The share of total income contributed by both Social Security and wages and salaries didn't change significantly between 1980 and 1990.

However, the proportion of income from pensions and annuities increased to 18 percent in 1990 from 14 percent in 1980 for each household of consumers who were 65 and older.

Other findings in the study included:

- Homeownership increased for older households. In 1980, 76 percent of the 65-to-74 group owned a home. By 1990, that had climbed to 82 percent. For households with consumers 75 and older, the rate in 1980 of 66 percent had increased to 72 percent by 1990.

- As homeownership increased, so did the percentage of older households still paying off a mortgage. In 1980, 18 percent of the 65-to-74 group had a mortgage and in 1990, 27 percent did. The proportion of households 75 and up with mortgages was unchanged at 8 percent.

- More older households had cars in 1990 than in 1980. In 1990, 87 percent of the 65-to-74 group had at least one car compared with only 79 percent in 1980. In 1990, 67 percent of the 75-plus group had at least one car compared with 55 percent in 1980.