Is age just a number or does everyone follow the path of aging?
Martha McClintock, professor in the departments of comparative human development and psychology at the University of Chicago, takes a look at all the facets of health and whether there are some surprising results.
Martha K. McClintock, Ph.D. is the David Lee Shillinglaw Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology. She holds joint appointments in the Departments of Comparative Human Development and Psychology and The College. She is a member of the Committees on Neurobiology and Evolutionary Biology.
McClintock is the founding Director of the Institute and held that position until 2008. She has been at the University since 1976.
Doctors traditionally view health through the lens of disease. But the World Health Organization has a broader definition, including mental and social well-being.
My colleagues and I wanted to test how our understanding of the health of older Americans changes with this more comprehensive model, and determine if such an approach better predicts the likelihood of dying or becoming incapacitated.
When all of the aspects of health are thrown into the mix, would everyone share the same pattern of aging that correlated with chronological age? Or, would there be different patterns, with people following different aging trajectories?
We surveyed a representative sample of 3,000 people ages 57 to 85, which means our findings apply to all Americans in this age group who live at home.
Working with NORC, we collected data not just about their diseases and medications, but their social lives, mental health, and mobility and sensory function.
We then returned five years later to find out who was still alive and who had died or was too sick to be interviewed.
Our analysis of the data revealed some surprising findings. There is not one pattern or health class, but six classes. Age isn’t a key determinant of health differences among older Americans.
Breaking a bone after age 45 defines one health class, and is a major indicator of future health issues. The healthiest class is obese robust people. Obesity seems to pose little risk to older adults in excellent physical and mental health.
Our study shows how the health of older Americans isn’t solely a medical matter. People need to start thinking about a mosaic of strengths and weaknesses, from past injuries to social interactions.