September 10, 2020
Why the Mix of Disabilities is Changing
The mix of disabilities for people receiving federal disability insurance has changed in important ways that often reflect trends in the health of the population as a whole.
Two disabling conditions that have become a growing share of Social Security’s benefit awards in recent decades are mood disorders and various musculoskeletal problems, which include arthritis and back pain.
First, consider mood disorders. They range from depression and bipolar disorder to irritability and seasonal affective disorder, and they can hamper someone’s ability to work. Mirroring the rising share of awards for mood disorders, their prevalence in the population has edged up from 54.6 percent of adults in 1997 to 56.2 percent in 2017, according to a study by Mathematica, a research organization.
Second, disability awards to people with musculoskeletal problems like arthritis and back pain have increased dramatically. These conditions are often aggravated by carrying excess weight, so the rise in cases aligns with the researchers’ estimate that the adult obesity rate has surged from about 20 percent to 31 percent.
But a related finding about musculoskeletal conditions is more difficult to explain. Despite the growth in disability awards involving these conditions, the share of the population afflicted by them – about a third – hasn’t changed much, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.
The researchers found one clue to this apparent contradiction in a separate analysis indicating that this population’s ability to work may be deteriorating over time. …Learn More
July 28, 2020
Retirement Research Presented Virtually
Like much in life under a pandemic, the research presentations for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium’s annual meeting are going virtual.
This year’s online meeting will also be scaled down from the traditional two days to one: Thursday, Aug. 6.
The purpose of the meeting, which is usually held in Washington, D.C., is for academics from universities and think tanks to describe their latest research to colleagues, policy experts, financial professionals, and the press. Topics this year will include taxes in retirement, federal disability insurance, housing, health, and labor markets. The U.S. Social Security Administration has funded the research and is sponsoring the meeting.
The agenda and information about registration are available online, and participants can register anytime. Questions for the researchers can be submitted during the presentations via a moderator.
One fresh idea being explored this year is taxes in retirement. Taxes are central to whether retirees have enough money to cover their essential expenses, but households that are approaching retirement age may not factor the need to pay federal and state taxes into their planning. Despite the importance of this issue, only a handful of existing studies have tried to estimate the tax burden. This paper fills the gap.
One session will feature a pair of papers looking at whether cognitive decline has a detrimental effect on older Americans’ finances. One will explore whether dementia leads to financial problems overall, and the other will focus exclusively on debt.
Researchers will also try to resolve a conundrum in the disability field: why are applications for federal benefits declining at the same time that Americans’ health is deteriorating? One hypothesis is that jobs are becoming less physically demanding. A second disability study will produce a publicly available database for researchers who want to examine the local factors affecting applications.
The agenda lists all of the papers that will be presented. Learn More
June 16, 2020
Readers Lament Decline in Boomer Health
The share of people in their late 50s with the second most severe form of obesity has tripled since the early 1990s. This grim fact, featured in a recent Squared Away article, clarifies COVID-19’s danger to older Americans.
The article, “Our Parents Were Healthier at Ages 54-60,” summarized research establishing that baby boomers are less healthy than their parents’ generation due to several conditions related to obesity, including diabetes, pain levels, and difficulty performing daily activities. The poorest Americans’ health deteriorated the fastest – and COVID-19 is preying on them.
“This decline in markers of metabolic health seems to correlate with increased vulnerability to the pandemic,” wrote one reader, Dan O’Brien, who was among several who commented on recent health-related blogs.
That’s what happened during the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009. Hospitalizations – and possibly death rates – were tied to obesity in adults with multiple health conditions, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“The vast majority of [COVID-19 patients] who reach the ICU suffer from comorbidities. My takeaway is that metabolic dysfunction is tied to immune-system failure in ways we don’t yet understand,” O’Brien said.
Another reader, Lorraine Porto, advocated a simple way for people to keep their weight in check: walk. An elderly woman she knows “walked miles every week.” Porto believes this healthy habit saved the woman’s life when she broke her hip in her 80s and was “walking around, sprightly as ever, less than two months later.” The woman lived into her 90s, Porto said.
A second health-related blog popular with readers looked at the unexpected costs of treating medical conditions that become more common in old age.
Older workers and retirees who try to anticipate their future medical expenses might feel a bit like they’re throwing a dart at a dartboard. The researchers did the work for them in a study described in the blog, “Unexpected Retirement Costs Can be Big.” …Learn More
April 7, 2020
Our Parents Were Healthier at Ages 54-60
Baby boomers aren’t as healthy as their parents were at the same age.
This sobering finding comes out of a RAND study that took a series of snapshots over a 24-year period of the health status of Americans when they were between the ages of 54 and 60.
The researchers found that overall health has deteriorated in this age group, and they identified the specific conditions that are getting worse, including diabetes, pain levels, and difficulty performing routine daily activities.
Obesity is an overarching problem: the share of people in this age group with class II obesity, which puts them at very high risk of diabetes, tripled to 15 percent between 1992 and 2016.
In addition to declining health, the study for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium uncovered strong evidence of growing health disparities among 54 to 60-year-olds: the poorest people are getting sicker faster than people with more wealth.
The increase in women’s pain levels has been starkest over the past 24 years. The wealthiest women have seen an increase of 6 percentage points in the share experiencing moderate to severe pain from conditions like joint or back pain. But the poorest women saw a 21-point leap. The disparity for men was also large: up 7 points for the wealthiest men versus 15 points for the poorest men.
The bottom line: today’s 54 to 60-year-olds are not as healthy as their parents were, and the study suggests that the disparities between rich and poor will continue to grow.
To read this study, authored by Peter Hudomiet, Michael D. Hurd, and Susann Rohwedder, see “Trends in Health and Mortality in the United States.”Learn More
March 24, 2020
If People Can Work Longer, They Will
A majority of adults believe there’s better than a 50-50 chance they will still be working full-time after age 65, a new study found.
The evidence suggests this goal is fairly realistic.
In the study, adults ranging in age from 18 to 70 were asked to rate themselves on a 1-to-7 scale for 52 different cognitive, physical, psychomotor, and sensory abilities that determine their capacity to work. These abilities run the gamut from written comprehension, pattern recognition, and originality to finger dexterity, reaction time, and vision acuity.
Of course, physical abilities decline with age. But when the researchers compared older and younger participants in the study, they found that many self-assessments of their abilities were very similar. For example, psychomotor abilities – such as hand steadiness, manual dexterity, and coordination – were at peak levels for the people in their 30s. But these abilities were only slightly diminished for the people in their 60s. And despite concerns about cognitive decline among older workers, the difference between 50- and 60-year-olds was minor.
The heart of the research, funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration, was determining whether each individual’s distinct set of abilities affected his or her work capacity, as well as how long and how much the individual intends to work as they age. This issue is important, because extending a career is a powerful way to improve one’s financial security after retirement.
To determine this capacity for work, each individual’s self-assessed abilities were matched up with the skills required to do nearly 800 different U.S. occupations. The researchers then calculated the percentage of these occupations each person would be able to do, given their education and training level.
Here are three of the central findings:
The more occupations people can do, the more likely they were to say they would work past 65.
Workers over 60 with a higher capacity to work said they would be more likely to remain employed even after 70.
One in four of the retirees with a very high capacity for work would consider “unretiring” and returning to the labor force. …Learn More
January 23, 2020
Medicaid Expansion has Saved Lives
The recent rise in Americans’ death rates is a crisis for the lowest-earning men. They are dying about 15 years younger than the highest-earners due to everything from obesity to opioids. Women with the lowest earnings are living 10 years less.
But healthcare policy is doing what it’s supposed to in the states that expanded their Medicaid coverage to more low-income people under the Affordable Care Act (ACA): helping to stem the tide by making low-income people healthier.
An analysis by the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis, found that death rates have declined in the states that chose to expand Medicaid coverage. The study focused on people between ages 55 and 64 – not quite old enough to enroll in Medicare.
Medicaid has “saved lives in the states where [expansion] occurred,” UC-Davis researchers found. They estimated that 15,600 more lives would have been saved nationwide if every state had covered more of their low-income residents.
This is one of many studies that takes advantage of the ability to compare what is happening to residents’ well-being in states that expanded their Medicaid programs with the states that did not. Progress has come on many fronts.
In expansion states, rural hospitals, which are struggling nationwide, have had more success in keeping their doors open. By covering more adults, more low-income children have been brought into the program, which one study found reduces their applications for federal disability benefits as adults. And low-income residents’ precarious finances improved in states where Medicaid expansion reduced their healthcare costs. …Learn More
October 17, 2019
What if Medicare Paid Your Dentist?
Two out of three U.S. retirees do not have dental insurance. Their basic choice is paying their dentist bills directly or, if they can’t afford it, forgoing care.
A new report analyzes the pros and cons of one potential solution to this pervasive problem: adding dental coverage to Medicare. Several bills that have circulated in Congress, including the Seniors Have Eyes, Ears, and Teeth Act of 2019, would do just that.
This approach recognizes that teeth and gums have everything to do with one’s health, said Meredith Freed, a policy analyst for the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Medicare policy program. Elderly people with loose or missing teeth have difficulty eating nutritious but hard-to-chew foods. Gum disease, left untreated, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, which is increasingly prevalent, makes people far more prone to gum disease.
Oral health care “has a significant impact on people’s happiness and financial well-being,” Freed said. Dental coverage under Medicare would “improve their quality of life.”
But a proposal to do this would face an uphill climb in Congress. Medicare is already under-funded. Dental care would only add to the program’s rising costs. Retirees do have another option: about two-thirds of the Medicare Advantage plans sold by insurance companies offer dental benefits. …Learn More