Subjective social status and functional decline in older adults

J Gen Intern Med. 2012 Jun;27(6):693-9. doi: 10.1007/s11606-011-1963-7. Epub 2012 Jan 4.


Background: It is unknown whether subjective assessment of social status predicts health outcomes in older adults.

Objective: To describe the relationship between subjective social status and functional decline in older adults.

Design: Longitudinal cohort study.

Setting: The Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative survey of community-dwelling older adults (2004-2008).

Participants: Two thousand five hundred and twenty-three community-dwelling older adults.

Main measures: Self-report of social status (SSS), categorized into three groups, reported by participants who marked a 10-rung ladder to represent where they stand in society. Four-year functional decline (new difficulty in any of five activities of daily living, mobility decline and/or death)

Key results: Mean age was 64; 46% were male, 85% were white. At baseline, lower SSS was associated with being younger, unmarried, of nonwhite race/ethnicity, higher rates of chronic medical conditions and ADL impairment (P < 0.01). Over 4 years, 50% in the lowest SSS group declined in function, compared to the middle and highest groups (28% and 26%), P-trend <0.001. Those in the lowest rungs of SSS were at increased risk of 4-year functional decline (unadjusted RR = 1.91, CI 1.-9-2.46). The relationship between a subjective belief that one is worse off than others and functional decline persisted after serial adjustment for demographics, objective SES measures, and baseline health and functional status (RR 1.36, CI 1.08-1.73).

Conclusions: In older adults, the belief that one is in the lowest rungs of social status is a measure of socioeconomic distress and of significant risk for functional decline. These findings suggest that self-report of low subjective social status may give clinicians additional information about which older adults are at high risk for future functional decline.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living*
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Female
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mobility Limitation*
  • Risk Factors
  • Self Report
  • Social Class*