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Graying state needs more health care

Not that long ago, New Mexico was among the youngest states in America. But a startling demographic shift is underway: Within a dozen years or so, our population will have become the nation’s fourth oldest.

The graying of New Mexico’s population is driven by complex factors, and it will present tremendous challenges to the delivery of health care in our state. It also presents a significant opportunity to grow our economy by expanding the bioscience and health care industries.

But we must start acting now to prepare for the future. Some revealing statistics illuminate the new reality that lies just over the horizon.

In 2000, 11.7 percent of New Mexico’s population was over 64, and we were ranked 39th oldest in the nation. But the U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2030, 26.4 percent of New Mexicans will be 65 or older – and we will then rank No. 4.

Why will we have such a high proportion of seniors in 2030? The outmigration of our youth is a factor, but not the most important one. In fact, the state’s birth rate has been declining for some time, while the absolute number of New Mexico seniors will have more than doubled from 2000 to 2030.

This demographic shift … will have an especially profound effect on the delivery of health care while presenting major new opportunities for business creation.

Currently, the health care use rate for people age 65-84 is about three times that of the under-65 population, and for those over 84 the use rate is double that of the 65-84 age group. Simple math suggests that we will need at least a 30 percent increase in almost every form of health care service in 2030 compared to 2010 – nurses, doctors, hospital beds, pharmacists, home health care – you name it.

Finding ways to fund medical care for a growing number of elderly patients will be an urgent challenge in the years ahead. But it is also vitally important that we explore creative new ways to deliver health care to this expanding population.

That’s where the University of New Mexico’s new initiative to create centers in geriatrics and gerontology comes in. This multidisciplinary group of scholars, physician-scientists and clinicians is poised to deliver clinical care and education, while conducting research to develop new technology tailored to the needs of older patients and provide policy advice to help guide the conversation.

Meanwhile, if we can figure out how to pay for needed health care services, these demographic changes will present lucrative opportunities for small businesses and service providers.

For example, there will be a growing demand for safe senior housing, public transportation and a host of services that allow seniors to “age in place” in their own homes. …Each of us must prepare to meet these future needs by supporting policies to promote cost-effective, high-quality health care. It will also require strong leadership from elected officials at all levels. The magnitude of the challenge might seem staggering, but if we act decisively, the opportunities for improved health care and economic transformation in our state are enormous.

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