Abstract

The decline in late-life disability prevalence in the United States was one of the most important developments in the well-being of older Americans in the 1980s and 1990s, but there is no guarantee that it will continue into the future. We review the past literature on trends in disability and other health indicators and then estimate the most recent trends in biomarkers and limitations for both the population aged 65 and older and those aged 40 to 64, the future elderly. We then investigate the extent to which trends in education, smoking, and obesity can account for recent trends in limitations and discuss how these three factors might influence future prospects for late-life health. We find that improvements in the health of the older population generally have continued into the first decade of the twenty-first century. The recent increase in the proportion of the younger population needing help with activities of daily living is concerning, as is the doubling of obesity in the last few decades. However, the increase in obesity has recently paused, and favorable trends in education and smoking are encouraging.

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