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Age Structure of Rural Communities

Data about the age of individuals illustrate the representation of various age groups in the community. These data can inform our expectations about population growth, decline, stability, and age-specific demands for services or infrastructure.

To determine the age structure of communities across the nation we rely on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau every ten years. Using information that respondents to the decennial census provide about their age at that time, demographers can construct measures that tell us how old or young a population is.

Research by Annabel Kirschner, E. Helen Berry, and Nina Glasgow (2006) examining the changing age structure between the non-metropolitan (rural) and metropolitan (urban) U.S., found that between 1920 and 2000 quite a bit of change occurred between the two parts of the country. From 1920 to 1940 rural America had a median age five (5) years lower than urban America ; meaning that the rural U.S. had more young people than urban areas. In 1950, 1960, and 1970, however, this difference narrowed, leading to a shift in 1980 when the median age in rural areas exceeded the median age in urban America. Since the 1980s, a rapidly aging population has characterized rural areas. In 2000, the median age in the rural U.S. was 37 and in the urban U.S. it was 34.9. Part of this trend is due to the aging of the baby boomers, a particularly large cohort of individuals born between 1946 and 1964, which affects urban and rural places alike. What makes rural areas older than urban areas, however, according to Kirschner et al. (2006), are changes in the migration patterns of older adults and declines in rural birth rates since the 1970s.

In the 1970s, rural America saw a sizeable and somewhat unexpected increase in population, referred to as the rural turnaround. This increase in rural population was driven not by a sudden rise in birth rates, but due to a rise in the in-migration of primarily older adults to rural areas (Kirschner et al., 2006). The influx of older adults, coupled with the out-migration of young adults that rural America has witnessed since the early 1900s, and a decline in fertility (birth rates) paved the way for the age structure of rural areas to shift from being younger than urban areas to being older than urban areas.

Given the trends in the age structure of rural communities, there are a number of implications for the future. Kirschner et al. (2006) highlight four areas of greatest concern: the first relates to housing, as older populations have different housing needs regardless of whether they stay in their home or move to group facilities. The second area relates to the changing health care needs of the rural population, as older adults will require more and different health professionals and infrastructure than many rural communities needed in the past. Third, the authors speculate that the aging population will place new demands on the rural transportation infrastructure. The final concern relates to the migration potential of the elderly. If rural communities do not adjust their health, housing, or transportation infrastructure to accommodate an older population, many of whom are geographically distant from their working age children who could provide informal care, they may have little choice but to move to metropolitan areas that can serve them better.

Aging in Oregon

According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of Oregonians age 65 and over in 2030 will be 18.25%. As of 2000 this age group comprised 12.8% of the total population in Oregon, therefore we can expect an increase of about 5 percent over the 30 years of that projection period. Increasing life expectancy as well as the aging of the baby-boom generation are the phenomena propelling this projected growth.

Population Pyramid

Population pyramid for Lakeview, OR (2000)

In 2000, 26 out of the 36 counties in Oregon had higher percentages of people age 65 and older than the state. Of those 26 counties with greater proportions of the elderly than Oregon as a whole, eight were between 19 and 26.6 percent 65 and older. The three counties with the highest shares of people over 65 were Josephine County with 20.12%, Wheeler County with 23.27%, and Curry County with 26.63% (all of which are rural counties).

These figures reveal the extent to which counties across Oregon must provide for and anticipate the needs of groups referred to by Gerontologists as the "frisky" (65-74), the "old-old" (75-84), and the "frail" (85+). In addition, however, the population age 55 to 64 deserves attention, particularly for those wishing to anticipate the needs of the elderly in the near future. According to the 2000 Census, people age 55 to 64 comprised 8.9% of the Oregon population and 8.63% of the US population.

Twenty-seven (27) out of the thirty-six (36) counties in Oregon have larger proportions of men and women age 55-64 than we see at the state level. 16.55% of Wheeler County is between 55 and 64 years of age and 14.22% of Curry County is between 55 and 64 years of age; these are the top two counties in terms of proportion of the population age 55 to 64 in Oregon.

Reflecting on one of the implications for the future of rural communities highlighted by Kirschner et al. (2006), a map of rural hospitals in Oregon compiled by the Oregon Office of Rural Health (2006) indicates that four rural counties do not have hospital facilities within their boundaries. Surprisingly, three of these four counties without hospitals have very large populations of people age 55 and older, comprising between 29 and 39 percent of their total populations: Wheeler County at 39.82%, Sherman County at 29.28%, and Gilliam County at 30.39%. In these three counties, there is clearly a mismatch between health care service provision and health care service demand.

Looking across Oregon, the median number of hospitals in a county is 1, the average is 1.69, and the majority of counties (mode) have only 1 hospital. Six counties have two hospitals, four have three (Coos, Jackson, Deschutes, and Marion), two counties (Lane and Clackamas) have four hospitals, and one county (Multnomah) has ten. Not surprisingly, the counties with more than two hospitals have some of the largest populations in Oregon. While the population in most of the counties with only one hospital is small, the land area is not, implying that the amount of travel required for rural elderly to reach a hospital facility is quite large in many counties.

Explore on Your Own!

Are there differences in the age structure of urban and rural communities in Oregon? Between 1990 and 2000, did the percentage of the population in various age groups change in some communities? Why do you think they changed? Are there some places with low percentages of people between the ages of 20-44? Why do you think this is and what do you think this means for the community?

Launch the Communities Reporter Tool

Links to additional sources of information about age structure

U.S. Population Projections, by state from U.S. Census Bureau:

Decennial censuses and American Community Survey (ACS) from U.S. Census Bureau:

Annual Population Estimates by age for Oregon, counties, cities, and incorporated towns from Portland State University (PSU) Population Research Center (PRC):

Age-Related Terms

Using the tools of the Oregon Communities Reporter you can examine trends in age across the state among the following variables:

  • Population Pyramid: A vertical bar graph that shows the age and sex structure of the population. Each bar represents the proportion of the population in a five-year age group during the year and each side of the graph shows the proportion of that age group that is female or male.
    Formula for each bar: ([population in age-gender group]/[total population])*100
    Source: US Census Bureau

  • Median Age: The age at which 50% of the population is younger and 50% is older.
    Source: US Census Bureau


Kirschner, Annabel, E. Helen Berry, and Nina Glasgow. 2006. The Changing Faces of Rural America. In W.A. Kandel and D.L. Brown (eds.), Population Change and Rural Society (53-74). Netherlands: Springer.

Oregon Office of Rural Health. 2006. Oregon Rural Hospitals (Map). Downloaded September 30, 2008.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2005. Population under age 18 and 65 and older: 2000, 2010, and 2030. Population Division, Interim State Population Projections, 2005. Internet release date: April 21, 2005.

Authored by Lena Etuk, Social Demographer, Oregon State University Extension Service (2008)

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