Though the general trend in the United States has been toward increasing life expectancy both at birth and at age 65, the temporal rate of change in life expectancy since 1900 has been variable and often restricted to specific population groups. There have been periods during which the age- and gender-specific risks of particular causes of death have either increased or decreased. These periods partly reflect the persistent effects of population health factors on specific birth cohorts. It is important to understand the ebbs and flows of cause-specific mortality rates because general life expectancy trends are the product of interactions of multiple dynamic period and cohort factors. Consequently, we first review factors potentially affecting cohort health back to 1880 and explore how that history might affect the current and future cohort mortality risks of major chronic diseases. We then examine how those factors affect the age-specific linkage of disability and mortality in three sets of birth cohorts assessed using the 1982, 1984, and 1989 National Long Term Care Surveys and Medicare mortality data collected from 1982 to 1991. We find large changes in both mortality and disability in those cohorts. providing insights into what changes might have occurred and into what future changes might be expected.