Examining Racial Disparities in Historical Change of Mental and Physical Health across Midlife and Old Age in the United States

Omar E. Staben, Frank J. Infurna, Margie E. Lachman, Denis Gerstorf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Objectives: To examine whether racial disparities are narrowing or widening with historical time among U.S. middle-aged and older adults, and test the extent to which educational attainment moderates racial disparities over historical time. Methods: Multilevel models were applied to longitudinal data on middle-aged (ages 40–65) and older adults (ages 66 and older) from the Health and Retirement Study. Historical change was indexed as cohort or birth year. The outcomes of focus were depressive symptoms, episodic memory, health conditions, functional limitations, and self-rated health. Results: Results revealed a differential pattern of racial disparities in historical change between midlife and old age. Across midlife and old age, on average, Blacks and Hispanics reported poorer levels of mental and physical health, compared with Whites. In midlife, racial disparities narrowed with historical time; later-born cohorts of Hispanics but not Whites reported fewer depressive symptoms than their earlier-born peers. Likewise, historical improvements in health were stronger among Hispanics and Blacks than Whites. Conversely, in old age, later-born cohorts across race consistently showed historical improvements in each of the outcomes examined. Regarding educational attainment, we observed little consistent evidence that health-promoting effects of educational attainment differ across race and cohort. Examining questions about heterogeneity, results revealed that in midlife and old age there was greater heterogeneity between race across each of the outcomes. Discussion: Our discussion elaborates on reasons behind the documented racial differences in historical changes among U.S. middle-aged and older adults, and how the protective role of education is changing over time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1978-1989
Number of pages12
JournalJournals of Gerontology - Series B Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2022


  • Adult development and aging
  • Cohort effects
  • Mental and physical health
  • Multilevel modeling
  • Racial disparities

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies


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