Senior man working

Behavior

Men’s Health and Disability Applications

It’s often true that men in their 50s who’ve done physically demanding jobs for decades develop debilitating conditions. But they’re not old enough to retire and collect Social Security.

Particularly during economic downturns, many of these workers have turned to a fallback option: federal disability benefits.

While economic conditions and policy changes are primarily responsible for the year-to-year changes in applications for disability, there is growing evidence of worsening health and functioning among men in their 50s and 60s. A new study has found that these trends have also increased the number of older workers who may qualify for disability benefits.

The researchers first confirmed past studies showing that this population’s health has gotten worse since the 1990s. More of them are suffering from various debilitating conditions, including asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer.

The older workers also increasingly reported having trouble carrying out some basic activities required to do their jobs, such as reaching overhead, kneeling, and standing for two hours. Evidence of the older workers’ deteriorating condition over time was confirmed in separate analyses of two different surveys: the Health and Retirement Study and the National Health Interview Survey.

The heart of the study was to measure the potential impact of declining health and work capacity on the Social Security disability program.

The analysis finds that the deterioration in men’s health is likely to have increased the share of these men who could qualify for disability benefits by more than 15 percent between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s. The rise in potential demand for benefits was unrelated to the aging of the baby boom population, which the researchers accounted for.

Economic downturns like the Great Recession increase disability applications and awards. But those increases are usually temporary.

Worsening health is a more enduring problem, which may call for a long-term solution to ensure the ongoing solvency of the disability program, the researchers said in their study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

To read this study, authored by Timothy Waidmann, HwaJung Choi, Robert Schoeni, and John Bound, see “Recent Trends in Disability and the Implications for Use of Disability Insurance.”  

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.  

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