The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has renewed its cooperative agreement with the University of Michigan to continue the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the nation’s leading resource for data on the combined health and economic conditions of Americans over age 50. The HRS, now in its 14th year, follows more than 20,000 people at two-year intervals, providing data from pre-retirement to advanced age. A major goal of the study is to help address the scientific and policy challenges posed by the nation’s aging population.
The renewal will provide approximately $70 million in funding over the next six years to continue the study. The U.S. Social Security Administration also will provide funding for such activities as collecting and developing data on pensions and consumption.
“Since it began in 1992, the Health and Retirement Study has provided a vast amount of information about the health and economic status of the aging U.S. population,” says Richard J. Hodes, M.D., director of the NIA. “It has also served as a template for similar studies now being conducted in other countries, making the study even more valuable in helping us to look at aging globally.”
The HRS paints a detailed portrait over time of older Americans’ physical and mental health, insurance coverage, financial well-being, labor market status, retirement planning, support systems, intergenerational transfers of time and money, and living arrangements.
“The aging and retirement of the baby boom is one of the most powerful demographic and economic forces at work in our country,” says NIA Director of Behavioral and Social Research Richard M. Suzman, Ph.D., who was instrumental in conceptualizing and starting the study. “The HRS has become a major national resource for addressing these issues and has acted as a powerful catalyst in combining economic, psychological and biological research perspectives to provide new understandings of retirement and aging.”
HRS Co-Directors Robert J. Willis, Ph.D., and David R. Weir, Ph.D., professors at the Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, note that the study’s continuous success and unusually high response rate depend on the ongoing contributions of the study participants.
“Over the past 14 years, a total of more than 27,000 Americans have contributed hundreds of thousands of hours to this unique research effort. These individuals, who share details about many aspects of their personal and family lives, are indeed our most valuable asset, and the study would not be possible without them,” Willis says.
Among the HRS’s important contributions to the study of aging and to social science research:
The HRS offers to the scientific community open access to in-depth, longitudinal data about adults over age 50, enabling researchers to explore critical aging-related concerns. Since the study began in 1992, 7,000 qualified scientists have registered to use the data, and nearly 1,000 researchers have tapped the data to produce more than 1,000 papers and dissertations, including over 600 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters.
The study’s broad national representation allows it to look at the older population in general, as well as the great diversity and variability of aging. Thus, while for most people retirement is a relatively smooth transition for which they have planned and prepared, there are important exceptions. One study using HRS data showed that households that are otherwise similar in many respects, including total lifetime income, nevertheless reach retirement with very different levels of wealth, implying very different patterns of saving and consumption.
The HRS helps researchers to investigate both current issues and trends over time. One important area of study has been the use of prescription drugs among older people. HRS data suggested that people age 65 and older were less likely than younger adults to have prescription drug insurance coverage, and research has shown that, regardless of age, people without prescription drug coverage are less likely than those with it to fill all of their prescriptions. This type of cost-cutting by seniors poses an increased risk for adverse health outcomes, HRS data have shown. The HRS also is actively following the impact of the new Medicare prescription drug benefit on the use of medications and ultimately on the health of the older population.
The HRS permits researchers to probe the impacts of unexpected health events, such as a cancer diagnosis, heart attack, stroke or the onset of chronic disease on other aspects of individuals’ lives. For example, analyses using the HRS data have shown that household income and wealth decline considerably after a “health shock” and that the income losses persist for at least a decade. Further, much of the loss of household wealth comes from loss of earnings rather than high average out-of-pocket medical expenses, suggesting that some people are under-insured for disability. Major illnesses that leave people with functional limitations often lead to early retirement, and studies are currently analyzing how less severe illnesses or declines in health and functioning may affect retirement decisions.
The HRS is one of the first national health surveys to measure cognitive health and cognitive-impairment risk factors at the population level. Data gathered through the study allow researchers to assess the impact of dementia on health care utilization and informal caregiving and the societal costs of dementia care. Researchers analyzing HRS data found, for example, that the national annual cost of informal caregiving by family and friends for dementia was $18 billion, compared with $9 billion for depression and $6 billion each for diabetes, stroke and incontinence.
The HRS gathers information about participants’ expectations for the future — when they expect to retire, how long they think they will live and how much they intend to bequeath to family members, for example. The combined use of this information and longitudinal data lets researchers look at whether people’s expectations are actually in line with what ultimately happens. Currently, baby boomers are predicting that they will stay in the labor force longer than their immediate predecessors did.
The HRS has served as a model for other large-scale, longitudinal aging and retirement surveys, including an 11-nation European study and similar studies in Britain, Mexico, Israel and South Korea. These studies’ parallel designs permit comparisons across countries, and cross-national exchange of information has brought new ideas and approaches, both for the other studies and the HRS. For example, the 2006 HRS survey wave will gather biomarker data, an idea originally pioneered by the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA). HRS and ELSA data also were used to compare the health of the U.S. and English white populations, finding that the English population was significantly healthier even after controlling for weight, exercise, smoking and alcohol consumption.
The HRS Web site, http://hrsonline.isr.umich.edu, provides more information on the study as well as an online bibliography of publications using the HRS, user registration and data links.