Functioning and Well-Being in the Third Age: 1986-2001

By Grafova, Irina; McGonagle, Katherine et al. | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Functioning and Well-Being in the Third Age: 1986-2001


Grafova, Irina, McGonagle, Katherine, ord, Frank P., Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


A belief exists that those in the Third Age, defined as the age range from 65-79 years, now have more choices: their health is better, their finances are better, and their ability to maintain their own home or work in the job market is better than it was for earlier generations of Third Agers. What is the health status of those in the Third Age, and how has this changed in the 15-year period from 1986-2001? Is it in fact the case that the health status is now better than it was for earlier generations? And, if health has improved, on average, which families are living with health limitations or under emotional distress versus those in good physical health enjoying good mental health as well? Are those enjoying good mental and physical health able to reach out to help other family members and to volunteer time and contribute money to charitable causes?

Are today's Third Agers in fact more likely to live independently in their own home by virtue of better health and economic status? How did their lives and well-being change over the time from when they were 50-64 years old? Is there a lesson to be learned for those now age 50-64 that would help them be better off at age 65-79? Do what may be termed objective measures of well-being predict an absence of mental health problems and better overall psychological well-being? In this chapter, we make use of data from a long national panel, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), to address these questions.

In 1986, in addition to the regularly appearing annual measures of income, labor market activity, housing, and other economic indicators, an extensive set of questions was included in the PSID on health, health behaviors, and functional limitations.1 These items were asked of all adults. Again in 1999 and 2001, many of these same measures of health and functioning were repeated. Because of the 15-year span between 1986 and 2001, we can study those who were Third Agers in 1986 and those who were the future Third Agers of 2001 as of 1986, how they fared during the period from 1986-2001, and how those aged 50-64 years as of 2001 compare to earlier cohorts prior to the Third Age.

In 1984, 1999, and 2001, PSID families were asked about their wealth holdings. Although 1984 does not line up quite so neatly with the age categories as does 1986, we can nonetheless get a picture of changing affluence in the Third Age. This picture clearly shows that, as of 2001, Third Agers hold more wealth than earlier Third Age families. Were they this fortunate in other domains? Are they able to make choices about retirement from the labor force, or is retirement primarily the result of health or other limitations on the ability to work?

OVERALL HEALTH: BODY AND MIND

Overall Reported Health

The year-by-year drift toward less favorably reported health is presented in Figure 2.1. These balanced panel data are for those individuals who were included in the sample, year-by-year, for the full period 1986-2001. As can be seen, in 1986, about 80% reported being in good to excellent health. By 2001, this declined, but not dramatically, to about 70%. Shifts occurred within the narrower health categories, with about 3% reporting poor health in 1986, rising to about 10% in 2001. Yet, the clear majority, over two-thirds, report being in good to excellent health in 2001.

Keeping in Shape

It can be argued that the health status of the Third Age results at least in part from health behavior. The health behaviors of the population generally, and of the older population in particular, have clearly improved in a number of dimensions (Table 2.1). Smoking rates have declined noticeably, although about 40% of those over 65 report being former smokers, and these may have persistent and lagging health effects. In contrast, for those under 50, smoking rates are lower in 2001 than in 1986, and rates of having been a smoker are about 20% in both years. As the cohort transitioned from 50-64 years of age in 1986 to 65-79 years of age in 2001, the smoking rate fell dramatically, from something over one-quarter of the individuals to something under a tenth. …

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