Health Checkup for Americans

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

Gallup has long kept tabs on Americans' subjective and objective evaluations of their health. In a recent poll devoted to health issues, Gallup asked Americans for an objective evaluation of their health. The basic data show that the majority of Americans do not report any health problems, but the extent of self-reported health issues varies by subgroup.

The Nov. 7-10 Gallup Poll* asked Americans three questions designed to objectively measure their health -- whether they have a physical disability that limits their activity, a long-term medical condition, illness, or disease, and whether they have been sick with a short-term illness sometime in the past 30 days. Overall, 21% of Americans say they have a physical disability, 31% say they have a long-term medical condition, and 24% report being sick in the past 30 days.

These percentages are similar to what Gallup measured in November 2001, at which time 21% said they had a physical disability, 28% had a long-term medical condition, and 24% said they had recently been sick.

Taking the results of the three questions together shows that a slight majority of Americans, 52%, are in "perfect health" -- that is, none of the health conditions applies to them. One in four say at least one of the three health issues applies to them, 16% say two, and an unfortunate 6% say all three apply to them.

Generally speaking, these self-reported health measures are strongly related to respondents' subjective evaluations of their health. Forty-nine percent of those who say none of the medical conditions applies to them rate their overall physical health as "excellent." That compares with just 5% of those who have two or three of the health issues measured; the majority of this group describes their health as "only fair" (35%) or "poor" (23%).

Additionally, those who report more health problems also rate their overall mental health less positively than those with fewer health problems. Among those with no health issues, 62% say rate their mental health as "excellent," compared with just 32% of those with two or more of the measured health problems.

Variation in Health Conditions by Subgroup

The data show some patterns in the different health problems by demographic characteristics such as age, gender, and weight. For the most part, age seems to be one of the most important factors related to overall estimations of health.

Physical Disability

  • There is a steady increase in the percentage of Americans who report some type of physical disability by age. Only 13% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 say they have some limiting disability, compared with 16% of those 30 to 49 years old, 26% of those 50 to 64 years of age, and 35% of those aged 65 and older.
  • Women (25%) are more likely than men (18%) to say they have a physical disability.
  • Twenty-six percent of Americans who describe themselves as overweight say they have a physical disability, compared with 18% who describe themselves as "about right" or underweight.

Medical Condition

  • More than 4 in 10 Americans above the age of 50 report having some type of long-term medical condition, illness, or disease. Specifically, 43% of both those in the 50 to 64 and 65+ age groups say they have such a condition. That drops to 24% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 17% of 18- to 29-year-olds.
  • There are no pronounced differences by gender -- 29% of men and 32% of women say they have a long-term medical condition.
  • Forty percent of those who say they are overweight also say they have a long-term condition, compared with 24% of those who are "about right" or are underweight.
  • One might expect smokers to be more likely to report a long-term illness, but these data show essentially no difference between smokers (34%) and nonsmokers (30%).

Recent Sickness

  • Interestingly, there is a reverse pattern in the relationship between age and reports of being ill recently -- younger Americans (18 to 29) are slightly more likely than older Americans (65 and older) to say they have been sick in the past 30 days. Among those aged 18 to 29, 28% report having a recent illness, compared with 24% of 30- to 49-year-olds, 22% of 50- to 64-year-olds and 19% of those 65 and older. This pattern was also evident in the 2001 data.
  • Women (27%) are more likely than men (20%) to report being sick recently.
  • Those who are overweight (29%) are more likely to say they have been sick recently than those who are "about right" or underweight (19%).

Bottom Line

Most Americans appear to be in good health by the criteria set forth, and a majority reports no significant health problems. However, those who are older and overweight are more likely to report issues with their health, and those who report having greater health problems also tend to rate their physical and mental health in less positive terms.

*These results are based on interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,016 national adults, conducted Nov. 7-10, 2004. For results based on this sample, the maximum margin of error is ±3 percentage points.

The following table shows the sample sizes and margins of error for the key subgroups discussed in the story.

 

Subgroup

Sample size

Margin of sampling
error

     

18 to 29 years old

130

±9

30 to 49 years old

367

±6

50 to 64 years old

300

±6

65 and older

209

±7

     

Male

484

±5

Female

532

±5

     

Overweight

417

±5

About right/underweight

596

±4

     

Smoker

197

±8

Nonsmoker

819

±4


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