Americans in their 50s are in poorer mental and physical health — and thus have greater health-care needs — than their peers a generation ago, according to a study published this month in the journal Health Affairs.
This troubling finding adds to growing evidence that the health of middle-aged Americans has not improved in recent decades, and may, in fact, have worsened.
The implications of such research are significant — for individuals as they finish up their working careers and move toward retirement, for employers as their workforce ages, and for Congress as it debates whether to push back the formal ages for Social Security and Medicare by two or three years.
“We found that younger cohorts are facing more burdensome health issues, even as they have to wait until an older age to retire, so they will have to do so in poorer health,” said Robert Schoeni, one of the study’s authors and an economist at the University of Michigan, in a released statement.
The current eligibility age for Medicare is 65. The full retirement age for Social Security is 66, although it is set to gradually increase until it reaches 67 for people born after 1959.
Five age groups
For their study, Schoeni and his co-author, demographer HwaJung Choi, analyzed several decades of data collected by the National Institute on Aging and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
They grouped the older Americans in that database into five birth cohorts, based on when they could receive their full Social Security benefits:
- people who could fully retire at age 65 (those born before 1938)
- people who could fully retire at some point during the year they turned 65 (those born during 1938-1942)
- people who could fully retire at age 66 (those born during 1943-1954)
- people who could fully retire at some point between the ages of 66 and 67 (those born during 1955-1959)
- people who could fully retire at age 67 (those born during 1960-1962)
Schoeni and Choi found that people now in their 50s — those in the 1960-1962 birth cohort —were much more likely to rate their own health as fair or poor compared to the other age cohorts when they were a similar age.
People in the later birth cohorts were also more likely to report problems with their memory and thinking skills. When they were in their late 50s, 11.5 percent of the people who could fully retire between 66 and 67 said they had cognitive problems. That compared to 9.2 percent of the people in the earlier birth cohorts — the ones who could retire at age of 65 and 66.
Fifty-year-olds today also reported greater difficulty performing basic daily living tasks by themselves — things like shopping for food, getting out of bed, dressing and taking medications. By the time they reached age 58-60, they were a third more likely to have least one limitation on their ability to perform such tasks than in previous generations.
The one area that didn’t differ across generations was physical function — being able to walk several blocks, climb stairs without resting or lift 10 pounds.
A reversal of fortune
The study has limitations, of course. In particular, the findings are based on people’s self-reports of their health. It could be that the more recent birth cohorts in the study were more likely to report their personal health problems.
Still the findings are deeply concerning.
When legislation was passed by Congress in 1983 to gradually increase the age for full Social Security benefits from 65 to 67 over a 22-year period, its supporters pointed to the fact that Americans were living longer than they had in the past.
They assumed that improvements in life expectancy would be accompanied by improvements in health for the people who were then only in their 20s and 30s.
“Now they are retiring and we know what their health is like — and it’s not better. In fact, some aspects of their health are worse than for the people who came before them,” said Schoeri.
“As policymakers talk of making the retirement age even later, these findings suggest that to fully understand the benefits and costs of such a policy, we must realize that raising the retirement age may further exacerbate the inequality between cohorts born only a few years apart, because the younger ones may find it more challenging to work beyond age 67.”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study in the October issue of Health Affairs, but the full study is behind a paywall.