The socioeconomic origins of physical functioning among older U.S. adults

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Mounting evidence finds that adult health reflects socioeconomic circumstances (SES) in early life and adulthood. However, it is unclear how the health consequences of SES in early life and adulthood accumulate-for example, additively, synergistically. This study tests four hypotheses about how the health effects of early-life SES (measured by parental education) and adult SES (measured by own education) accumulate to shape functional limitations, whether the accumulation differs between men and women, and the extent to which key mechanisms explain the accumulation. It uses data from the 1994-2010 Health and Retirement Study on U.S. adults 50-100 years of age (N= 24,026). The physical functioning benefits of parental and own education accumulated additively among men. While the physical functioning benefits generally accumulated among women, the functioning benefits from one's own education were dampened among women with low-educated mothers. The dampening partly reflected a strong tie between mothers' education level and women's obesity risk. Taken together, the findings reveal subtle differences between men and women in the life course origins of physical functioning. They also shed light on a key mechanism-obesity-that may help explain why a growing number of studies find that early-life SES is especially important for women's health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)244-256
Number of pages13
JournalAdvances in Life Course Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Education
  • Functional limitations
  • Gender
  • Health
  • Life course

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Life-span and Life-course Studies

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