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Could baby boomers be approaching retirement in worse shape than their predecessors?



March 5, 2007

NIA Press Office | 301-496-1752 | nianews3@mail.nih.gov



Americans in their early to mid-50s today report poorer health, more pain and more trouble doing everyday physical tasks than their older peers reported at the same age in years past, a recent analysis has shown. The research, published in print and online this week by the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), was supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a component of the National Institutes of Health.

The study was conducted by Beth J. Soldo, Ph.D., Olivia Mitchell, Ph.D., and John McCabe, Ph.D., of the University of Pennsylvania, and Rania Tfaily, Ph.D., of Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario. The newly published report appears as part of NBER’s Working Paper series and follows the analysis’ online appearance in 2006. It will also be published in a refereed volume from Oxford University Press in 2007.

Using a summary health index developed for their analysis, the researchers compared the overall, self-reported health of people in three birth-year groups—those born in 1936-41 (now ages 66 to 71), 1942-47 (now ages 60 to 65) and 1948-53 (now ages 54 to 59). The data came from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationwide, NIA-sponsored survey of more than 20,000 Americans over age 50 that began in 1992. It draws from survey respondents’ answers to questions about their health and well-being when they were all between the ages of 51 and 56. The researchers’ health index blended HRS participants’ ratings of their health, difficulty with physical mobility and agility, and perception of physical pain.

The study showed:

  • The two younger groups were less likely than the oldest group to have said their health was “excellent or very good” at 51 to 56 years of age.
  • The youngest group reported having more pain, chronic health conditions, and drinking and psychiatric problems than people who were the same age 12 years earlier.
  • Compared with the oldest group, the youngest group was more likely to have reported difficulty in walking, climbing steps, getting up from a chair, kneeling or crouching, and doing other normal daily physical tasks.

This new analysis provides some initial data raising the question of whether today’s pre-retirees could reach retirement age in worse shape than their predecessors, with individuals potentially in poorer health than current retirees and possibly increasing health care costs for society. In the past two decades, there has been a dramatic decline in disability among people 65 and older. One recent report of this trend, for example, found that the prevalence of chronic disability among people 65 and older fell from 26.5 percent in 1982 to 19 percent in 2004/2005 (see "Disability Among Older Americans Continues Significant Decline" at www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/2006/12/disability-among-older-americans-continues-significant-decline).

Researchers and policymakers are vitally interested in whether this trend will continue, accelerate or decelerate with the retirement of the baby boom, a critically important question in planning for health, housing and other needs of this wave of retirees, who begin to turn 65 in 2011.

The NBER report follows earlier analyses, including an NIA-supported study suggesting that the obesity epidemic, which is driving higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, could threaten the disability decline as well. It will be important to develop and understand new data about pre-retirees to see which direction the boomer cohort will take, says Richard Suzman, Ph.D., director of the NIA’s Behavioral and Social Research Program.


References:

Soldo, B.J. et al. Cross-Cohort Differences in Health on the Verge of Retirement. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 12762. National Bureau of Economic Research (2007). Available online at: http://www.nber.org/ .

Manton, K.G., et al. Change in chronic disability from 1982 to 2004/2005 as measured by long-term changes in function and health in the elderly population. PNAS (2006), 103(48):18374-9.

Lakdawalla, D.N. et al. Are the young becoming more disabled? Health Affairs (2004), 23(1):168-76.

The NIA leads the federal effort supporting and conducting research on aging and the medical, social and behavioral issues of older people. For more information on research and aging, go to www.nia.nih.gov. Publications on research and on a variety of topics of interest on health and aging can be viewed and ordered by visiting the NIA website or can be ordered by calling toll-free 1-800-222-2225.

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