May 05, 2016

Studying Aging Populations

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

You might have heard the phrase "aging population" and thought, wait a minute, isn't every living thing aging? What does it mean to say that a population is aging?

Demographers study the composition of populations, including its age structure. Demographers use population pyramids to create a graphic depiction of a country's age structure. In a "normal" pyramid, the base is wider (representing infants and children) and gradually narrows at the top; as people get older and die, they essentially leave the population.

In "aging" populations, the base isn't much wider than the bars representing people in middle and older adulthood. This means that more people are living longer, and people are having fewer children. The population number remains somewhat stable, but the population is on average older. As the proportion of the population over 65 grows, this creates new challenges for countries that face this shift.

Consider the two population pyramids of the U.S. below. The first is from 1990, and the second is the projected population for 2050. Notice a few things about 1990. The percentage of the population 95 and over is extremely small. The 25-34 bars are very wide—so-called "baby boomers" comprised a large percent of the population at that time. Because there were so many people born between 1946 and 1964, at that point we had many young adults in the population relative to other age groups. Just 12.6 percent of the population was 65 or older in 1990.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Now take a look at the projected population of the U.S. in 2050. The bars stay wider longer, meaning that demographers are predicting that more people will live longer. According to census predictions, the number of people 65 and over will double by 2050, comprising about 20 percent of the population. In other words, one in five Americans will likely be 65 or older in 2050. While the 100 and over bar isn't shaded in 1990, demographers predict that more people will be a century old, enough to at least be represented on a population pyramid.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

So what does all of this mean? Demography is a useful tool for planning for the future. By looking at the predicted age structure of the population, we might guess that the health care system might need to adapt as more people live longer into old age. More people might need to live in assisted living facilities, and more home health aides might be needed in the labor force.

In order to assess the population's needs, the U.S. Census Bureau regularly conducts the American Community Survey (ACS). As I blogged about a few years ago, I was randomly selected (or my address was) to participate in the ACS in 2012; I was also randomly selected to participate this year too. I don't remember all of the questions from 2012, so I'm not sure if they were identical, but this time I noticed that several questions seemed to be related to aging and disability.

The survey asked if anyone in my household had difficulty with tasks of daily living, such as getting dressed, going up and down stairs, or if anyone had cognitive impairments that might make decision making difficult. It asked a number of other questions as well, including whether members of the household were employed (this is one source from which estimates of unemployment are taken), and if so, how far we traveled to work each way. The survey also inquired about whether we have access to kitchen facilities at this address, the language spoken at home, and the highest level of education completed by people in the household.

The Census Bureau explains why the ACS includes these and other specific questions in a document called "Why We Ask." The ACS includes questions about physical and cognitive abilities, "to identify vulnerable populations which may be at disproportionate risk of experiencing limitations in health care access, poor health quality, and suboptimal health outcomes," to assess housing needs, to "prepare and respond to disasters," and for planning public transportation routes.

All of these questions will be helpful for assessing the needs of an aging population. As people experience hearing or vision loss, for instance, they will need to find other ways of getting around when they are no longer able to drive but still need to shop and want to remain active. ACS data can be used for transportation planning, as well as creating goods and services that older people will want and need. Communities might need to make adjustments as well, incorporating restaurants, shops, and other services in locations close to older consumers who can't drive. New home builders might create more single-story dwellings for people who have difficulty with stairs.

What other ways should be begin preparing for an aging population?


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