Background: previous studies have suggested a decline in the relationship between socioeconomic circumstances and health or functioning in later life, but this may be due to survival effects.
Objective: to examine whether wealth gradients in the incidence of illness decline with age, and, if so, whether this decline is explained by differential mortality.
Methods: the study included participants in the first two waves of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), a large national longitudinal study of the population aged 50+ in England, who reported good health, no functional impairment, or no heart disease at baseline. Wealth inequalities in onset of illness over 2 years were examined across age groups, with and without the inclusion of mortality. Outcome measures were functional impairment, heart disease, self-reported health, and all-cause mortality (in conjunction with self-reported health and disability) or circulatory-related mortality (in relation to heart disease).
Results: wealth predicted onset of functional impairment equally across age groups. For self-reported health and heart disease, wealth gradients in the onset of illness declined with age. Selective mortality contributed to this decline in the oldest age groups.
Conclusions: socioeconomic inequality in developing new health problems persist into old age for certain illnesses, particularly functional impairment, but not for heart disease. Selective mortality explains only some of the decline in health inequalities with age.