Historical improvements in well-being do not hold in late life: Birth- and death-year cohorts in the United States and Germany

Dev Psychol. 2015 Jul;51(7):998-1012. doi: 10.1037/a0039349.


One key objective of life span research is to examine how individual development is shaped by the historical time people live in. Secular trends favoring later-born cohorts on fluid cognitive abilities have been widely documented, but findings are mixed for well-being. It remains an open question whether secular increases in well-being seen in earlier phases of life also manifest in the last years of life. To examine this possibility, we made use of longitudinal data obtained from the mid-1980s until the late 2000s in 2 large national samples in the United States (Health and Retirement Study [HRS]) and Germany (German Socio-Economic Panel [SOEP]). We operationally defined historical time from 2 complementary perspectives: birth-year cohorts based on the years in which people were born (earlier: 1930s vs. later: 1940s) and death-year cohorts based on the years in which people died (earlier: 1990s vs. later: 2000s). To control for relevant covariates, we used case-matched groups based on age (at death) and education and covaried for gender, health, and number of observations. Results from both countries revealed that well-being in old age was indeed developing at higher levels among later-born cohorts. However, for later-deceased cohorts, no evidence for secular increases in well-being was found. To the contrary, later-dying SOEP participants reported lower levels of well-being at age 75 and 2 years prior to death and experienced steeper late-life declines. Our results suggest that secular increases in well-being observed in old age do not manifest in late life, where "manufactured" survival may be exacerbating age- and mortality-related declines.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Cohort Effect*
  • Depression* / psychology
  • Epidemiologic Research Design
  • Female
  • Germany
  • Health Status
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Propensity Score
  • United States