While life expectancy is increasing overall, it hasn’t gone up evenly across all wealth groups: Richer people are living longer, but generally poorer people are not.[1] As income inequality grows, it is possible that mortality gaps will widen as well. This has implications for Social Security since higher-income individuals who have larger monthly benefits may receive those benefits for a longer time, leading to greater demands on the Old Age and Survivors trust fund.

Past studies haven’t looked at wealth in relation to mortality because commonly used data — Census, Current Population Survey and Social Security death records — have few, if any, measures for education and income. This makes pinpointing socioeconomic background difficult. For their paper “Trends in Health and Mortality Inequalities in the United States,” Peter Hudomiet, Michael Hurd, and Susann Rohwedder chose to look at the interaction of mortality and health status more directly by using health, educational attainment, and SS wealth measures in the 1992 to 2016 Health and Retirement Study (HRS) Waves.

HRS’ measures of subjective (self-predicted survival to age 75) and objective (doctor-diagnosed disease such as hypertension and diabetes) health were particularly helpful for the authors’ analysis. Other studies looking at mortality rates have used past mortality trends to project future mortality trends. This technique doesn’t account for changes in health that will affect those trends in the future. To include such future health trends, the authors use the forward-looking self-predicted survival measure, which “relies on information known to the individual but not observed in objective indicators.”


  • Individuals’ expectations of good health and life expectancy are increasingly unequal. Among men in the lowest income group, subjective survival to age 75 dropped from 58.6% for the 1934 to 1938 birth cohort to 50.7% for the 1955 to the 1959 cohort, a decrease of 7.9 percentage points. For men in the next highest income group, subjective survival dropped 4.8 percentage points between those cohorts. This contrasts with men in the top three income groups whose expectations of surviving to age 75 have remained stable between cohorts.
  • Lower income respondents had larger increases in obesity, diabetes, and pain levels, and they self-reported lower levels of health and survival probabilities.
  • Because of this, the authors predict overall life expectancy to increase among higher income folks. This will lead to greater mortality inequality.

Read the paper: https://bit.ly/MRDRCwp401

[1] For further reference see Auerbach et al. 2017; Bosworth, Burtless, and Zhang 2016; Case and Deaton 2015; Chetty et al. 2016; Goda, Shoven, and Slavov 2011; Sanzenbacher et al. 2017