The social stratification of aging and health

J Health Soc Behav. 1994 Sep;35(3):213-34.


The way health varies with age is importantly stratified by socioeconomic status (SES)--specifically, education and income. Prior theory and cross-sectional data suggest that among higher SES persons the onset of health problems is usually postponed until rather late in life, while health declines are prevalent in lower SES groups by middle age. Thus, SES differences in health are small in early adulthood, but increase with age until relatively late in life, when they diminish due to selection or greater equalization of health risks and protections. The present paper strengthens our causal and interpretive understanding of these phenomena by showing: (1) that results previously reported for indices of SES hold separately for education and income; (2) that the interaction between age and SES (i.e., education or income) in predicting health can be substantially explained by the greater exposure of lower SES persons to a wide range of psychosocial risk factors to health, especially in middle and early old age, and, to a lesser degree, the greater impact of these risk factors on health with age; and (3) that results (1) and (2) generally hold in short-term longitudinal as well as in cross-sectional data. Implications for science and policy in the areas of aging, health, and social stratification are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Educational Status*
  • Female
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Income*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Odds Ratio
  • Risk Factors