|NIH, University of Michigan Renew Major Survey on Older Adults’ Health,
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, economic and psychosocial 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
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
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
Among the HRS’s important contributions to the study of aging and to social
- 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 who do 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
- 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.
The National Institute on Aging leads the federal effort supporting and
conducting research on aging and the medical, social, and behavioral issues
of older people. For more information on research and aging, go to www.nia.nih.gov.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's Medical Research
Agency — includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal
agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical
research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common
and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.