The Role of Job Histories and Work Characteristics in Differentiating Trajectories of Physical and Mental Health in Later Life

by Michal Engelman, University of Chicago

Recent and projected increases in the size of the older population have prompted concern about the level of pension spending and its sustainability into the future. Advocates for raising the pension eligibility age point to improvements in life expectancy to argue that older Americans are living longer, healthier lives, and are thus capable of working longer. However, trajectories of physical and mental health in later life vary greatly, reflecting the dynamic influence of innate individual endowments as well as the cumulative impact of lived experiences in specific environmental and socioeconomic contexts. While survival to and health in older ages have been linked to measures of socioeconomic position throughout the life course, the mechanisms that predispose individuals to particular patterns of health declines and functional impairments are not well understood. The aim of this study is to characterize heterogeneous trajectories of physical and mental health among older Americans and, particularly, to examine the role of employment histories and job characteristics in differentiating these trajectories over time. Using the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study, I will examine the work and health trajectories of Americans between 1992 to 2010. Because there were quite distinct gender differences in labor markets and health experiences (particularly among this cohort), all models will be estimated separately for women and men. Job histories will be assigned cumulative psychosocial and physical exposure scores using a work exposure matrix. To account for the heterogeneous trajectories of impairment in later life, I will use a latent class framework to examine change over time in four dimensions of physical and mental health, including disability (defined as difficulty performing primary or instrumental activities of daily living), physical functioning, depressive symptoms, and cognitive impairment. First, I will estimate distinct trajectories within each health outcome, considering the onset, progression, and overall level of health problems as people age. Next, I will incorporate time-varying covariates to show how changes over time in employment and retirement status, health conditions, and social support interact to define these health trajectory classes. Finally, I will analyze the association of these trajectories with race/ethnicity, education, income, occupational categories (at baseline and for the longest-reported occupation), and cumulative job characteristics exposure scores to better understand the mid-life factors that predict differential patterns of physical and mental health declines in the post-retirement years.

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