Socioeconomic stratification and multidimensional health trajectories: evidence of convergence in later old age

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2015 Jul;70(4):661-71. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbu095. Epub 2014 Aug 26.


Objectives: This research sought to examine socioeconomic stratification in the joint trajectories of physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning among older Americans and how it differs by age groups.

Methods: We used data from a nationally representative sample of 9,237 Americans age 65 or older from the Health and Retirement Study, who were observed biennially from 1998 to 2010. Joint trajectories of physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning were characterized using a group-based mixture model. We then applied multinomial logistic regression analysis to evaluate their linkages with socioeconomic status and how the linkages differ by age groups.

Results: We identified four distinct patterns of joint changes in physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning over time. Accounting for 29.3%, 23.5%, 24.5%, and 22.6% of the older Americans, respectively, these trajectory patterns characterized groups of individuals experiencing minimal to severe levels of impairment and deterioration. Lower education, income, and net worth were associated with trajectories featuring greater impairment or more rapid deterioration in these functional dimensions. Disparities based on education, however, attenuated in later old age, whereas health benefits associated with higher income and higher net worth persisted into advanced age.

Discussion: Distinct patterns of joint trajectories of physical, emotional, and cognitive functioning exist in old age. There were significant socioeconomic differences in the joint trajectories, with education-based inequality in health converging in later old age. Further research identifying strategies to alleviate the disproportionate burden of poor multidimensional health trajectories in lower socioeconomic groups is important.

Keywords: Cognition.; Depression; Disability; Elderly; Joint trajectories; Socioeconomic status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Aging / psychology
  • Cognition Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Disabled Persons / statistics & numerical data*
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Social Class*
  • United States / epidemiology