Aging, Health Behaviors, and Health Outcomes

By K. Warner Schaie; Dan Blazer et al. | Go to book overview

Social Stratification and Aging: Contemporaneous and Cumulative Effects

Ronald P. Abeles

National Institute on Aging

In analyzing the interrelationships among social stratification, age, and health, House and his colleagues have taken on an intricate question. What may appear at first glance to be a set of relationships between one societal-level variable (i.e., social stratification) and two person-level variables (i.e., age and health) is at closer inspection even more complicated. The complexity arises from the dual nature of age as both a societal- and a person-level variable. On the one hand, age, or better yet, aging is a complex biopsychosocial process operating within and upon individuals over their life course. This is the more common way of viewing age. On the other hand, age is also a social stratification system, like class, operating upon socially defined categories of people over historical time. Hence, chronological age is not only a presumed marker of processes within a person, but also an indication of his/her location within a social system ( Riley, Johnson, & Foner, 1972). Thus, House et al. are investigating interactions among two social stratification systems (socioeconomic status and age) and two biopsychosocial processes (health and aging). A formidable task, indeed!

House et al.'s task is made even more difficult by the dynamic nature of these societal- and individual-level processes. It is virtually a truism to note that not only do social systems change over time, but so do individuals. House and his colleagues point to historical changes in societal level processes, which may be "squaring" the morbidity and mortality curves for successive cohorts of Americans and which may be more pronounced among the higher socioeconomic strata. Socioeconomic strata differences in health among older people are, according to House et al., the consequences of social stratification processes that differentially (a) place people in opportunity structures (e.g., availability

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