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Study: Older Americans May be Less Healthy Than Previous Generations

December 07, 2017

Americans are living longer, but according to one recent study they may not be living healthier.

In the study, published in the journal Health Affairs, researchers used data from two separate surveys conducted by the U.S. National Institute on Aging and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to examine the health of five different age groups close to retirement age. 

The adults were grouped based on when they would receive Social Security: people born in 1937 or earlier, those born between 1938 and1942, those born between 1943 and 1954, people born between 1955 and 1959, and people born between 1960 and 1962. Due to changes in the federal retirement age made more than 30 years ago, the last group — those born in the early 1960s — have to wait longer than the other groups to receive full Social Security benefits. They can start collecting at age 67, compared to age 65 to 66 for the other groups.

Researchers discovered that those who had to wait longer to receive Social Security benefits tended to have more health challenges than the other age groups had at the same age. More of this group experienced memory and cognitive issues; more of them rated their own health as poor or fair and more members of this age group also had limitations performing routine, everyday activities like grocery shopping, getting out of bed and taking medication.

Why are More Middle-Age Americans in Worse Health?

The study’s findings indicate that many middle-age Americans may be in poorer health than previous generations when they do reach retirement age and are ready to claim full Social Security benefits. The study did not delve into why this group may be less healthy, but previous research has indicated that chronic stress, chronic disease, rising obesity rates and lifestyle habits such as alcohol and tobacco consumption all may play a role in the health patterns we’re seeing.

Researchers say the study’s findings could have implications for federal policy, since legislators are considering raising the age for collecting full Social Security benefits.

“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 groups born only a few years apart, because the younger ones may find it more challenging to work beyond age 67,” said Robert Schoeni, one the study’s coauthors.

Whatever the policy implications, this research indicates we need to pay even closer attention to the health challenges many Americans in their 50s and 60s will face as they get older, and place more emphasis on preventative care before this group even reaches middle age. Doing this could help to ensure that more Americans age with dignity and can enjoy a better quality of life in retirement.

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