Defining 'Good' and 'Poor' Health Empirically: A Profile of Older Adults in the United States


(November 2010) A large share of the older population in the United States is doing well, overall. Although most discussions of the health of this population tend to focus on the prevalence of obesity, smoking, or common diseases, each person has their own level of resistance or susceptibility to different health problems.

In her presentation as part of PRB’s Policy Seminar Series, Linda Waite, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, described an effort by her and colleagues to categorize older people into “classes” of health, using a wide range of measures of physiological function, physical functioning, mental health, and disease. She used data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Study, a survey of 3,005 older adults conducted from 2005 to 2006. The study included 46 biomarkers, or indicators of health, divided into four metacategories: cardiovascular, immune, neurophysiological, and functional health. We can trace health trajectories for people at older ages, but age by itself does not determine these pathways. Risk factors and early signs of disease are apparent for some but mental health, usually ignored, is key to underlying health of the older population.

The links between health and interpersonal relationships were also examined. The second wave of the survey is underway and will include social network data from the previous wave to obtain network change, or how many more connections or relationships the survey participants made, sustained, or lost. The first wave of participants, in addition to their partners, will be interviewed.

Linda Waite is Lucy Flower professor of sociology and director of the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago. She is also principal investigator of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Study (NSHAP), a large-scale, nationally representative survey of Americans ages 57 to 85 that focuses on the relationship between social networks, intimacy, physical health, emotional well-being, and cognitive function at older ages.