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Grown Ups

By Alex Piazza

Baby Boomers are retiring at an astounding rate of 10,000 people per day.

By 2030, when the last of the Baby Boomers turn 65, 20 percent of the U.S. population is expected to be 65 and older—a five percent increase from 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This dramatic change in population means more retirees will draw benefits, while fewer workers will help pay for programs like Social Security and Medicare. How will these population trends impact society?

Cue the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS). Launched in 1992, the study helps researchers and policymakers address these challenges by providing a wealth of information related to income, pension plans, health care expenditures and cognitive functioning of Americans 50 and older.

“This study is one of the most important in the world. It brings together scientists from a broad range of disciplines, and is a prime example of Michigan’s strength in interdisciplinary research and ISR’s commitment to collaboration.”

“This study is one of the most important in the world,” said David Lam, director of the U-M Institute for Social Research, which oversees the study. “It brings together scientists from a broad range of disciplines, and is a prime example of Michigan’s strength in interdisciplinary research and ISR’s commitment to collaboration.”

The longitudinal study surveys a representative sample of about 20,000 people in America over the age of 50 every two years. Using survey data, researchers then are able explore changes in labor force participation and health transitions people undergo toward the end of their work lives, and in the years that follow.

And with an additional $40 million in funding from the National Institute on Aging, researchers over the next three years plan to extend the scope and value of the study by increasing its sample population, collecting blood samples to study how aging impacts the immune system and focusing more attention on dementia.

“The power of the HRS comes from bringing together many different scientific perspectives,” said David Weir, director of the study. “By sharing the data, we let literally thousands of scientists here and around the world use their creative energy to forge new and important discoveries about aging.”

Here’s a look at how researchers were able to use study data to create a broader understanding of aging in America:

Positive outlook

Optimism could be your best medicine. Findings from the Health and Retirement Study show that when older adults feel optimistic about their future, they are less likely to experience decreases in memory, problem solving and judgment.

Over a four-year period, about 500 of the study's more than 4,600 participants developed cognitive impairment, which causes a slight but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills. But study participants who reported high levels of optimism showed reduced risk of cognitive impairment.

Therefore, researchers believe optimism may be a novel and promising target for prevention and intervention strategies aimed at improving cognitive health.

Domino effect

Older men who lose their jobs not only suffer financial consequences. Unemployment also could cause them to pack on pounds.

Researchers tapped the Health and Retirement Study to gauge health outcomes after people lose their job, and they found these individuals had genes that predisposed them to weight gain. They reached these findings after constructing an equation that used body mass index and other genetic data to create a single number for an individual’s genetic risk for weight gain.

The research suggests that a significant social stressor like job loss may trigger or amplify genetic risk for weight gain in otherwise healthy or normal weight populations.

Men between the ages of 50-60 who lost their job and were at high genetic risk for weight gain gained nearly 10 percent more when compared to men who shared similar genetic risk, but maintained employment. A substantial increase in the size of the older workforce and the severity of the recent recession makes understanding the effects of job loss on body mass index crucial to deciphering current trends in heart health among the aging U.S. population.

Butt out

African-Americans and Latinos have an edge over whites when it comes to their ability to stop smoking. In a study of nearly 3,000 smokers, researchers found that blacks and Latinos are more likely to quit successfully after 20 years than whites.

The quit rate was about 20 percent and 50 percent higher for blacks and Latinos, respectively, compared with whites. Findings from the Health and Retirement Study show that while black youth are less likely to smoke than white youth, the disparity almost disappears by adulthood, as African-Americans often start smoking later in life.

The general belief is that black smokers are less likely to quit, researchers said, but this study contradicts that assumption by showing that after age 50, African-Americans are more likely to quit. This study shows that when it comes to drugs and substances, for many outcomes, it is whites—not African-Americans—who are at higher risk and vulnerability.

Cardiac predictor

Symptoms of depression lead to a greater risk of heart disease in older black adults, but not in white adults. Researchers analyzed a sample of more than 7,000 people who responded to the Health and Retirement Study in 1994, when they were between 53 and 63 years old.

The participants were asked if they had symptoms of depression, including loneliness and restless sleep. They also reported any heart ailments, including heart attack, coronary artery disease, angina or congestive heart failure.

Once the 18-year survey period ended, researchers found the risk of heart disease in people with elevated symptoms of depression was nearly 30 percent higher in black adults than in white adults. Therefore, elevated symptoms of depression at the beginning of the survey proved to be a strong predictor of subsequent heart disease among black participants.


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