Older adults in the US are better off, on average, than those in other countries, according to a new index developed by researchers at Columbia University and the University of Southern California. However, while US seniors do relatively well by quality of life measures such as social connections at work and across generations, they fall in the middle of the pack when it comes to physical well-being and financial and personal security.  And, not surprisingly, the gap between those doing well and those doing relatively poorly is greater in the US than in many other developed countries.

The newly-developed Global Aging Index takes a high level look at five key physical, social, and financial measures.  A sample analysis of the data shows that Norway and Sweden are coping best with the challenges of their aging populations, with the US, the Netherlands, and Japan close behind. By this index, nations such as Hungary and Poland lag well behind.

What’s in the index?

The five elements of the index are: productivity and engagement in and out of the workplace, physical well-being, retirement security and physical safety, social connections including across generations, and the gaps in well-being and economic security between the haves and have-nots. Each of these domains includes measures of health, and economic and social well-being.

Building trans-national indexes such as this is not easy. This one relies on three different sources of basic data– the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) in the US, the Survey of Health and Retirement in Europe (SHARE),and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). While each is credible, they are all somewhat different from one another. Thus, comparing data can be challenging.

The countries in the index also are quite different demographically. For instance, the populations of   Germany and Japan are much older than the US, thus those countries have much greater challenges as they respond to their aging populations.

If the US scores higher than Japan in social connectedness, does that mean the US is doing something better? Or is it simply a reflection of the fact that 27 percent of Japanese are 65 and older compared to 15 percent of Americans? And is the US headed toward the same problems when one-quarter of its population tops 65? That will happen in about two decades, in case you were wondering.

Unintended consequences

Other measures may be the unintended consequences of long-standing government policies. For example, one reason the US scores so high in the workplace engagement of older adults is that it has an older retirement age than many other countries in the index. Seniors are more engaged in their workplaces in the US because, well, they are more likely to be working.

Did the US establish a basic retirement age that is older than Europe because it wanted to encouragement greater social engagement by older adults? Not at all. But it might have that beneficial effect.

The index was funded by the John A. Hartford Foundation and released at last month’s International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics’ World Congress.  While its ratings are very precise (the US has an overall score of 59.8) I would not focus on the number. Rather, I suspect the real value of this index will be in the way it measures change over time. It will help us see whether the US (or any other country) does better by its seniors in the years to come. And knowing that can help us adjust policy to be sure we are moving in the right direction.