Addressing health disparities across race, ethnicity and age has long been central to our work at the Alliance for Aging Research. The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted older adults and communities of color and has further highlighted the urgency of advancing health equity. As the data in the Senior Report show, the toll of the pandemic significantly increased mortality and drove down life expectancy for older adults, particularly in communities of color. While early death increased 17% nationally between 2019 and 2020, rates rose much more significantly among populations of color, including 48% among Hispanic, 32% among American Indian/Alaska Native, 31% among Asian and 29% among Black adults ages 65-74. Meanwhile, many other challenges including “deaths of despair” (i.e., drug overdoses, suicide and alcoholic liver disease) were aggravated by the pandemic, underscoring the trade-offs inherent to policies that have an isolating effect on older adults.
As we seek to understand and address these longstanding challenges and disparities, it is critical to examine negative social determinants of health and their impact on health challenges in communities of color. Experiences with aging are shaped by many social factors such as structural racism, safety of living conditions, access to quality health care and education and our level of financial resources. The life-changing outcomes of these social determinants of health have been thrown into sharp focus by the pandemic.
We clearly have a lot of work to do, but data collection will help with understanding just how far we need to go and where to target our efforts. That is where comprehensive, evidence-based resources like America’s Health Rankings have an important role to play.
The COVID-19 pandemic taught us lessons about how the absence of timely access to detailed, reliable data can exacerbate health inequity. For example, initial federal COVID-19 vaccination recommendations prioritized adults ages 75 and older, while the average age of COVID-19 deaths and cases in communities of color was several years younger — leaving those communities to wait longer to get access to limited vaccine supplies and underscoring that demographics beyond older age were critically missed in data analyses. Data sources provided early in the pandemic did not consistently provide cross-tabulations studying the intersection of COVID-19 with both age and race/ethnicity. While this lack of information created blinders at a vital time, we know now how valuable it is to have comprehensive subpopulation-level data over time to drive equitable public health efforts.
The pandemic revealed stark inequities in health outcomes that should be studied to inform what actions our nation’s public health system prioritizes moving forward. When collected and analyzed through an equity lens, data can better guide effective solutions for all. Especially in a time when misinformation and disinformation of science are rampant, our policymakers need access to trusted, reliable data sources that are consistent over time. I urge public health officials, community leaders and health advocates to explore, and make use of, the data available in the Senior Report as we work toward a healthier future for older adults across all communities.