Self-rated health (SRH) is a valid measure of health status and associated with mortality. Based on individual-level biannual repeat data on SRH we sought to characterize the natural history of poor SRH during the 12 years prior to death in men and women in different age groups. We conducted a retrospective analysis of the Health and Retirement Study participants who died between 1998 and 2010 and had at least two SRH measurements in the 12 years prior to death. We used a nested case-control design to compare SRH trajectories of deceased men and women aged 30-64, 65-79 and 80 years versus surviving participants. The cases comprised 3,350 deceased participants who were matched to surviving controls (n = 8,127). SRH was dichotomized into good vs. poor health. Men and women dying at age 65-79 and ≥ 80 years had 1.5 to 3 times higher prevalence of poor SRH already 11-12 years prior to death compared to surviving controls. The risk estimates remained statistically significant even after adjusting for life-style related risk factors and diagnosed diseases. Prevalence of poor SRH before death was lowest among those aged ≥ 80 years and highest in 30-64 year-olds. In conclusion, men and women who subsequently die perceive their health worse already 11-12 years prior to death compared to their surviving controls.