SALT LAKE CITY — Utah ranks second in the nation for the health of its seniors, according to a new report.
America's Health Rankings Senior Report 2019 shows Utah has the lowest numbers in the country of seniors over the age of 65 who smoke and drink, and the highest number of seniors who volunteer and stay involved in their communities.
"Utah has done very well overall over the course of this report," said Dr. Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and chief medical officer of United Healthcare National Markets, which compiles the report.
In the seven years since the report began, Utah's ranking has crept up from 10th the first year to first place last year. This year, the Beehive State was surpassed only by Hawaii.
According to Randall, Utah wins in five of the report's categories. In addition to having the lowest number of seniors who smoke and drink, and impressive volunteering numbers, Utahns are first in their use of hospice care. Fewer seniors in Utah die in hospitals than in any other state, Randall said.
The report — made with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — also shows that Utah could use improvement in a few categories if it wishes to stay at the top.
For example, Utah is ranked 42nd in the nation for people who have dedicated care providers, such as primary care physicians.
"There's opportunity for a greater number of seniors in Utah to make sure that they're getting the dedicated care," Randall said. That's important for preventive health.
Utah also scores 42nd for diabetes management. The report questions whether people between the ages of 65 and 75 who have diabetes are "doing all the recommended screenings that diabetics need; are they getting their eyes checked for the effects of high blood sugar on their vision?" Randall said.
At 82 percent, a lower number of seniors in Utah than average have prescription drug coverage compared to the rest of the U.S. In that category, the Beehive State is 43rd in the country.
Utah also scores low for seniors signed up for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The report shows data and trends but not cause and effect, according to Randall.
What can other states learn from Utah?
"The states that are ranked in the top five, the top 10 of this report, have a tendency to be the states where they're doing well in many of the categories that represent the 34 measures in the report," Randall said.
Successful states tend to have lower rates of obesity, lower rates of excessive drinking and smoking, and low rates of physical inactivity.
"Utah has also done really well with regards to clinical care," with low rates of hospital readmissions and preventable hospitalizations, Randall explained.
Utah ranked second in the nation in regard to "outcome," meaning that fewer seniors are using intensive care units and fewer are losing their teeth. Utah has lower rate of teeth extractions than most states and a lower rate of premature death before the age of 75, Randall said.
"Utah is doing very well in many of those categories, and that's one of the reasons why their rank has improved over the years," she said.
Some areas are seeing improvement nationwide. The number of home health care providers has grown exponentially since 2018, Randall said. "That makes it more accessible for people who want to stay in their homes longer."
Fewer seniors today than in the previous generation are likely to smoke, she said.
But some concerning national trends are arising. Seniors reported having higher rates of depression this year than last year, with 8 percent nationally saying they have frequent mental distress. More women are reporting depression than men, according to Randall.
How can Utah remain at the top as its elderly population continues to grow rapidly?
According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, now, about 1 in 10 Utahns are over the age 65. But by 2065, that number is estimated to be 1 in 5 and will bring some challenges.
"Keep doing what you're doing very well. This report is a ranking, so not only does it reflect what you're doing as a state, but it reflects what the other 49 states are doing as well. How does Utah stay at the top? It means continue to do those things that you're doing very well like volunteering, not smoking, not drinking excessively, etc.," Randall said.