, Volume 32, Issue 3, pp 311-324

Healthier, Wealthier, and Wiser: A Demonstration of Compositional Changes in Aging Cohorts Due to Selective Mortality

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Abstract

The gradual changes in cohort composition that occur as a result of selective mortality processes are of interest to all aging research. We present the first illustration of changes in the distribution of specific cohort characteristics that arise purely as a result of selective mortality. We use data on health, wealth, education, and other covariates from two cohorts (the AHEAD cohort, born 1900–1923 and the HRS cohort, born 1931–1941) included in the Health and Retirement Survey, a nationally representative panel study of older Americans spanning nearly two decades (N = 14,466). We calculate sample statistics for the surviving cohort at each wave. Repeatedly using only baseline information for these calculations so that there are no changes at the individual level (what changes is the set of surviving respondents at each specific wave), we obtain a demonstration of the impact of mortality selection on the cohort characteristics. We find substantial changes in the distribution of all examined characteristics across the nine survey waves. For instance, the median wealth increases from about $90,000 to $130,000 and the number of chronic conditions declines from 1.5 to 1 in the AHEAD cohort. We discuss factors that influence the rate of change in various characteristics. The mortality selection process changes the composition of older cohorts considerably, such that researchers focusing on the oldest old need to be aware of the highly select groups they are observing, and interpret their conclusions accordingly.