La. seniors among nation’s least healthy

Louisiana ranked next-to-last when it comes to senior health, thanks to the highest rate of obesity in the country and the lowest percentage of quality nursing beds, a new report shows.

A year ago, Louisiana ranked No. 48 in senior health. Only Mississippi stood between Louisiana and the bottom spot this year.

Some 30.4 percent of Louisiana seniors are obese, compared to 25.8 percent nationally, according to the report from United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Rankings Senior Report.

“We haven’t embraced lifestyle changes,” said Dr. Penny Walker, senior medical director for the United Healthcare-Southeast region. “I do think the trend comes because we’re not addressing the overall obesity in the state.”

Louisiana has high numbers of obese children, who become obese adults, who become obese seniors, Walker said. United Healthcare and the American Heart Association have built walking parks in Louisiana in an effort to help people exercise more, and seniors have improved their physical activity levels. Inactivity decreased to 32.9 percent from 38.5 percent a year earlier.

But more work must be done to get out the word. Part of the solution is for seniors to join Medicare Advantage plans that help them manage chronic illnesses, Walker said. It’s also important to have a fitness plan.

If a person eats something that’s maybe less healthy, they should offset it by exercising a little more. If it’s hot, walk in a mall. If they can’t walk for 30 minutes in a row, break it up into five-minute increments.

Walker said obesity isn’t just a Louisiana problem. The entire Southeast has it.

People in Louisiana love fairs and festivals. They learn early how to make a roux, cook with a lot of butter and fry lots of things, she said.

“You know, we can take a really healthy piece of meat, batter it and fry it and add several hundred calories,” Walker said.

On the plus side, seniors fell less frequently than their counterparts — 24.1 percent of Louisiana seniors reported falling in the past 12 months, compared to 27.1 percent nationally. And fewer seniors were underweight, 1.1 percent versus 1.8 percent.

“Underweight is important because there have been more and more studies showing that if you’re underweight, you’re more prone to diseases than if you’re a little over your actual ideal body weight,” Walker said.

Louisiana’s other strengths include a readily available supply of health care workers and a higher-than-average flu vaccination rate, 63.8 percent compared to 59.4 percent nationally.

The United State’s senior population is expected to double in the next 25 years, so it’s important, the report says, that states and local communities continue to address unhealthy behaviors that threaten to compromise seniors’ health. Those challenges include obesity, inactivity and chronic health conditions.

Minnesota was the healthiest state for seniors for the second year in a row. The rest of the top five, in order, are Hawaii, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts. The bottom five, in order, are Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arkansas.