Race/ethnic and nativity disparities in later life physical performance: the role of health and socioeconomic status over the life course

Haas SA, Krueger PM, Rohlfsen L.  Center for Population Dynamics, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-3701, USA. steven.haas@asu.edu.  J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2012 Mar;67(2):238-48. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbr155. Epub 2012 Mar 5.

OBJECTIVES: We examine race/ethnic and nativity differences in objective measures of physical performance (i.e., peak expiratory flow, grip strength, and gait speed) in a nationally representative sample of older Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. We also examine whether detailed measures of childhood and adult health and socioeconomic status (SES) mediate race/ethnic differences in physical performance.

METHOD: We use data from the Health and Retirement Study, a population-based sample of older Americans born before 1947, and 3 measures of physical performance. Nested ordinary least squares models examine whether childhood and adult health and SES mediate race/ethnic differences in performance.

RESULTS: We find large and significant race/ethnic and nativity differences in lung function, grip strength, and gait speed. Adjusting for childhood and current adult health and SES reduces race/ethnic differences in physical performance but does not eliminate them entirely. Childhood health and SES as well as more proximal levels of SES are important determinants of race/ethnic disparities in later life physical performance.

DISCUSSION: The analysis highlights that a large proportion of race/ethnic and nativity disparities result from health and socioeconomic disadvantages in both early life and adulthood and thus suggests multiple intervention points at which disparities can be reduced.