NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Dimensions of Health in the Elderly Population

David M. Cutler, Mary Beth Landrum

NBER Working Paper No. 17148
Issued in June 2011
NBER Program(s):   AG   HC

In this paper, we characterize the multi-faceted health of the elderly and understand how health along multiple dimensions has changed over time. Our data are from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey, 1991-2007. We show that 19 measures of health can be combined into three broad categories: a first dimension representing severe physical and social incapacity such as difficulty dressing or bathing; a second dimension representing less severe difficulty such as walking long distances or lifting heavy objects; and a third dimension representing vision and hearing impairment. These dimensions have changed at different rates over time. The first and third have declined rapidly over time, while the second has not. The improvement in health is not due to differential mortality of the sick or a new generation of more healthy people entering old age. Rather, the aging process itself is associated with less rapid deterioration in health. We speculate about the factors that may lead to this.

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