The Health and Retirement Study Tracks a Host of Factors that Impact People as They Age

By Chris Adams

If you want to report on America’s aging population, one of the first places to start is the Health and Retirement Study.

Funded by the National Institute on Aging (a component of the National Institutes of Health) and the U.S. Social Security Administration, the study is a goldmine of data  on respondents’ health status, use of health services, work history, wealth and income, family structure and expectations about the future.

Among the health indicators, recent survey cycles have even collected biomarkers – height, weight, blood pressure, saliva samples for DNA, and blood.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, study director David Weir led fellows through an explanation of what is collected and how researchers and journalists use it. Weir (bio) is also a research professor at the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

The study is ongoing and collects information from the same people over time. It’s nationally representative, multidisciplinary and comparable with similar studies in several other countries. Beyond that, it’s public use – meaning it’s there for the research community to use.

And use it they do: More than 2,500 academic publications have been based on Health and Retirement Study data – and the number of such citations per year is constantly increasing (for 2017, the figure was 300).

The multidisciplinary approach is key, Weir said. The study’s financial figures closely track those collected in the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances; its health measures track closely with the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Having all that information in one study and from the same people is what makes the study so important.

“The power of the study is in using all these things in combination,” he said.

Across all countries, various health and retirement studies conducted about 20,000 interviews in 2014. In the U.S., the first wave of respondents was in 1992; those people are re-interviewed every other year for as long as they live – and more respondents are added. The study now has 27,000 U.S. participants.

This program is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

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