The Importance of Objective Health Measures in Predicting Early Receipt of Social Security Benefits: The Case of Fatness



Theoretical models argue that poor health will contribute to early exit from the labor market and the decision to take early Social Security retirement benefits (Old-Age or OA benefits). However, most empirical estimates of the causal importance of health on the decision to take early OA benefits have been forced to rely on global measures such as self-rated work limitations or self-rated health. We contribute to the empirical literature by using a more objective measure of health, fatness, to predict early receipt of OA benefits. We do so by estimating the causal impact of fatness within an empirical model using the method of instrumental variables, and testing the robustness of our findings using the most common measure of fatness in the social science literature – body mass index – with what is a more theoretically appropriate measure of fatness – total body fat and percent body fat. Overall, our conclusion is that fatness and obesity are strong predictors of early receipt of OA benefits.

Key Findings

  • It is only body fat, not fat-free mass like muscle, that predicts early receipt of Social Security Old-Age benefits (OA).
  • An extra standard deviation of total body fat is associated with a 19.3 percentage point higher probability of early receipt of OA benefits.
  • The impact of policy changes that could decrease the uptake of Social Security disability benefits at 62 may be overwhelmed by the potential impact of increased obesity.


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Paper ID

WP 2006-148

Publication Type

Working Paper

Publication Year