Heterogeneity in Healthy Aging

Published in: The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, v. 69, no. 6, June 2014, p. 640-649

Posted on RAND.org on June 01, 2014

by David Lowsky, S. Jay Olshansky, Jay Bhattacharya, Dana P. Goldman

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For a surprisingly large segment of the older population, chronological age is not a relevant marker for understanding, measuring, or experiencing healthy aging. Using the 2003 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey and the 2004 Health and Retirement Study to examine the proportion of Americans exhibiting five markers of health and the variation in health-related quality of life across each of eight age groups, we find that a significant proportion of older Americans is healthy within every age group beginning at age 51, including among those aged 85+. For example, 48% of those aged 51–54 and 28% of those aged 85+ have excellent or very good self-reported health status; similarly, 89% of those aged 51–54 and 56% of those aged 85+ report no health-based limitations in work or housework. Also, health-related quality of life ranges widely within every age group, yet there is only a comparatively small variation in median quality of life across age groups, suggesting that older Americans today may be experiencing substantially different age-health trajectories than their predecessors. Patterns are similar for medical expenditures. Several policy implications are explored.

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