Data for Mississippi and Wyoming contrasts with highly populated New England states

For more than a decade, a team of UMass Boston gerontology researchers has been producing detailed reports tracking data related to healthy aging for New England states. The researchers have drilled down to the town level—and in larger cities, to neighborhoods—to offer numbers on such things as access to housing, transportation, healthcare and food; available community resources; safety and crime; disease rates; income; pollution; and more. Collecting such hyper-local data in one report helps everyone from local officials and advocates to state policymakers in tracking trends, identifying disparities, and evaluating interventions and policies.

Begun in 2012 with a Massachusetts report looking at 100 indicators, the healthy aging data reports have grown in scope to track anywhere from 125 to 200 indicators for two Massachusetts updates, two Rhode Island reports, and a Connecticut report.

Recently the researchers expanded their geographic footprint with healthy aging data reports for Mississippi and Wyoming. The two new states offered new challenges for the team, including how to present data when vast areas of the states have few to no residents, compared to New England’s densely populated states. The new states’ populations are also far more diverse than New England’s. In some parts of Mississippi the population is nearly 30 percent Black, compared to between 8 and 12 percent in New England states; Wyoming is home to an important older Native American population.

Beth Dugan headshot
Beth Dugan

“Many patterns of health or illness we’ve found in New England were not what we saw in Mississippi and Wyoming,” says Beth Dugan, PhD, professor of gerontology, who leads the research team. “In New England, if you want to see hot spots for high rates of serious complex chronic disease, you look in poor urban neighborhoods. In Mississippi, you see it in the rural counties, where older people are marooned from services.” Mississippi consistently ranks  near the bottom of U.S. health rankings, likely tied to its relatively high poverty rates. “The need is so great,” Dugan says. “Our reports can help move the needle in terms of promoting public health , so why not focus on one of the most under-resourced states in the U.S.? They have a solid infrastructure and great leadership for building more healthy aging and age friendly work.”

Kina White, PhD, director of Mississippi’s Office of Community Health Improvement, will unveil her state’s healthy aging data report on May 4, 2023, at an inaugural Healthy Aging Summit. The event is part of a comprehensive dissemination plan Dr. White has created that includes mailing the report to municipal leaders and other stakeholders and creating a public-facing dashboard on her office’s website. She was sold on the UMass Boston research team because they look at older adult health using a social determinants lens, which takes into account income and social status, access to support networks, education and literacy levels, employment and working conditions, and other aspects of the social and physical environment.

Recently a health department colleague who works on oral health asked White if she had any relevant data on older adults. She could point to a number of oral health indicators included in the data report. “We can empower our communities by bringing this information to them. The report is valuable for advocacy, research, grant writing and more. Our communities are hungry for this information,” she says, noting that she filled the aging summit’s 150 seats in two weeks, with a waiting list.

In Wyoming, the population of residents 65 and older is nearly 100,000, compared to more than one million in Massachusetts. Delivering services that promote healthy aging is challenging in Wyoming, where the prevailing attitude is “the less government the better,” says Dugan.

Virginia Vincenti, professor emeritus of human development and family sciences at the University of Wyoming, requested the report for her state after hearing Dugan present on the data report series at an aging conference. A central, comprehensive data resource will be useful for educating everyone from county sheriffs and police officers to state legislators, she says, on issues ranging from where the risk for financial fraud exploitation is high to identifying communities with a high incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Vincenti assembled a statewide healthy aging coalition and worked to get funding for the report. Advocating for healthy aging in Wyoming, a politically conservative state, “is a long, complicated process, but I’m optimistic.”

Over the years, the healthy aging data reports have generated plenty of successful outcomes. After the team issued its first Massachusetts report, the Massachusetts Councils on Aging/Senior Centers received $1 million to do evidence-based chronic disease self-management programs. “When you’re trying to focus a mayor on transportation needs, it’s helpful to be able to point to how many residents are mobility challenged, or when you want to increase respite care and can point to the number of local dementia cases,” says Dugan.

Nina Silverstein

“Everyone is hungry for local data,” says Nina Silverstein, PhD, professor of gerontology and research team member. “It’s an incredibly rewarding project because it’s so hands-on. We learn something from every state, and each state has different challenges.” Agrees Dugan, “We don’t just offer one product that we roll out. Local stakeholders really own the product. Some want more data on housing, others may focus on access. Each report gets better with feedback from stakeholders.”

The first time Maureen Maigret, former director of elderly affairs in Rhode Island, used her state’s healthy aging data report was to help develop digiAGE, a program to bridge the digital divide in the state by linking older people to technology and internet access. “The report broke down internet use by city and town, along with income information for each community,” Maigret says. “We found it extremely useful.” Her office used the report’s data countless times in preparing testimony for state legislators.

The New England reports have been supported by Point32Health Foundation (formerly Tufts Health Plan Foundation), who in addition to financially supporting the research provide their expertise and connections in community for each report.

“These reports, which center community voices, deliver relevant and timely information,” says Nora Moreno Cargie, president of Point32Health Foundation and vice president of corporate citizenship at Point32Health. “They help community leaders identify opportunities so that limited resources are focused on what matters to people in their towns, cities, and states.”

Point32Health Foundation recently funded the research team to update reports for Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island and to create an inaugural Maine Healthy Aging Data Report. The current team, in addition to Dugan and Silverstein, includes Qian Song, PhD; Jay Lee, PhD; Taylor Jansen, PhD ‘23; and doctoral student Yan-Jhu Su.  Frank Porell, retired professor of gerontology, led the analytic work of the first reports. Many former doctoral students have contributed innovations to the reports.

Students interested in research experience are encouraged to contact Dugan to discuss opportunities.