(June 2007) On June 12 in Washington D.C., the National Institute on Aging (NIA) convened a panel of speakers to address the significance of the Health & Retirement Study (HRS). This briefing was designed to introduce media, policymakers, benefits professionals, and others to the study’s breadth and depth as a resource about our aging population.

At the event, NIA introduced a new publication, Growing Older in America: The Health & Retirement Study, highlighting findings and trends from the study about the lives of older people.

Launched in 1992, the HRS is a federally funded longitudinal study of more than 20,000 Americans, surveyed every two years. The study is conducted through a cooperative agreement between the NIA and the University of Michigan.

The HRS survey spans the last 15 years and is the largest collection of combined health and economic information for people over the age of 50. The study is a cooperative effort on behalf of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health and the University of Michigan’s Social and Behavioral Research Program.

This session was co-sponsored by the Population Reference Bureau, National Institute on Aging, Alliance for Aging Research, Consortium of Social Science Associations, Employee Benefit Research Institute, Institute for Social Research, Population Association of America, and Association of Population Centers.

The Speakers

Bill Butz, president and CEO, Population Reference Bureau
John Haaga, deputy director, Behavioral and Social Research Program, NIA

Introduction to the HRS (begins at 6:32 in webcast)
Dr. James Smith, RAND Chair in Labor Market and Demographic Studies
Smith’s discussion gave a broad overview of the history and mission of the HRS. The HRS is unique because it integrates both health and economic surveys of an aging population. Thousands of researchers and over 20 countries have used the HRS to help answer questions of the aging population, including how to provide income security and how to deal with health problems related to aging.

Basic Design of the Study and Using HRS: What the HRS Offers You (begins at 15:51 in webcast)
Dr. David Weir, HRS co-director, Survey Research Center, University of Michigan
Weir explained the basic design of the study and how the HRS can be used by researchers. His focus is on the “interplay between income and health” and the researchers’ multidisciplinary approach to information gathering. To date, there are over 7,000 students, scientists, and government officials who have registered to use the data provided by the HRS and over 1,000 researchers who have published papers citing the HRS.

Financial Aspects of Retirement (begins at 29.17 in webcast)
Dr. Robert Willis, HRS co-director, Survey Research Center, University of Michigan
Willis explored how changes in society, economy, demography, and technology have altered the landscape of aging in America. The resources that people bring into their retirement have been critical to their overall health, as there is a “strong negative correlation between health and wealth,” according to the HRS. Though most people have saved adequately for retirement in the past, longer lives and earlier retirement may threaten this pattern.

Health and Disability among Older Americans (begins at 46.32 in webcast)
Dr. Mark Hayward, director, Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin
Hayward discussed the burden of disease and the ability of older people to live independently and care for themselves. Stratification by race is evident in the data, but he also explained that despite Hispanics’ relatively low level of socioeconomic resources, they have mortality risks comparable to U.S.-born whites. Educational attainment also greatly influences the ability of the aging population to live active and independent lives; a college education can add five more years to the life expectancy of a person at age 55, according to the HRS.

International Comparisons Using the HRS (begins at 1:00:44 in webcast)
Dr. James Smith, RAND Chair in Labor Market and Demographic Studies
In his presentation, Smith highlighted how the HRS has set a precedent for aging studies across the globe. Populations in many nations are experiencing a change in age structure, especially China. The HRS projects that there will be 329 million Chinese over the age of 60 in 2050, a figure greater than the total current U.S. population. Smith also remarked that Americans are sicker than their British counterparts, because the United States has higher rates of diabetes, heart attack, stroke, lung disease, and cancer.

Closing Remarks (begins at 1:15:47 in webcast)
Barbara Torrey, Visiting Senior Scholar, Population Reference Bureau