Socioeconomic disparities in health among older adults and the implications for the retirement age debate: a brief report

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2014 Nov;69(6):973-8. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbu041. Epub 2014 May 8.


Objective: Policy debates about raising the full retirement age often neglect socioeconomic health disparities among U.S. workers. In response to this gap, we analyzed educational differentials in health among middle-age and older adults and translated the findings into age equivalents.

Method: We used the nationally representative 1997-2010 National Health Interview Surveys data on white and black adults aged 40-74 (N = 341,060). Using nonparametric regression (locally weighted scatterplot smoother) stratified by sex, race, and three educational levels, we determined age-specific prevalence of fair or poor self-rated health and any activity limitation, and compared the ages at which different demographic groups experienced a specific level of these two outcomes.

Results: Results varied slightly across health outcomes and demographic groups but generally showed that college-educated white men reported a level of limitations at age 70 that is equivalent to the levels reported by high school graduates at age 40-55. High school dropouts reported worse health at age 40 than the college educated at age 70, a gap of more than 30 years.

Conclusions: Our findings revealed enormous health inequalities in self-reported health, using a powerful and intuitive age-equivalence formulation. They highlighted the importance of considering health disparities in discussions about raising the retirement age, both in terms of fairness and feasibility.

Keywords: Health disparities; Older adults; Retirement policy.; U.S. workers.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Black People / statistics & numerical data
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Health Status Disparities*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Retirement* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United States / epidemiology
  • White People / statistics & numerical data