Life Course Stressors and Functional Limitations in Later Life Among White, Black, and Hispanic Adults: Deleterious, Hardening, or Benign?

J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2022 Jan 12;77(1):249-259. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbab066.


Objectives: Although striking racial and ethnic disparities in health are manifest during later life, they may be rooted in early-life exposures. Drawing from cumulative inequality theory, we investigate whether life course stressors are associated with the risk of later-life functional limitations and whether this relationship differs by race and ethnicity.

Methods: We utilize longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study to test whether child and adult stressors predict trajectories of the occurrence and severity of functional limitations among a diverse sample of older adults.

Results: Child and adult stressors are associated with greater occurrence and severity of functional limitations during later life. Mediation analyses reveal the indirect influence of child stressors via adult stressors on occurrence and severity of functional limitations; however, the indirect effects are slightly stronger for Black and Hispanic adults than their White counterparts.

Discussion: Child stressors, in and of themselves, do not increase functional limitations among Black and Hispanic people but are associated with greater adult stress exposure, predisposing them to more functional limitations. Results suggest that childhood stressors are associated with distinct social pathways to functional limitations among White, Black, and Hispanic older adults.

Keywords: Disability; Health disparities; Stress accumulation; Trauma; Weathering.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences / ethnology*
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / ethnology*
  • Black or African American / ethnology*
  • Female
  • Functional Status*
  • Health Status Disparities
  • Health Surveys
  • Hispanic or Latino*
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Stress, Psychological / ethnology*
  • United States / ethnology
  • White People / ethnology*