Race/Ethnic and Nativity Disparities in Later Life Physical Performance: The Role of Health and Socioeconomic Status Over the Life Course

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We examine race/ethnic and nativity differences in objective measures of physical performance (i.e., peak expiratory flow, grip strength, and gait speed) in a nationally representative sample of older Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics. We also examine whether detailed measures of childhood and adult health and socioeconomic status (SES) mediate race/ethnic differences in physical performance.


We use data from the Health and Retirement Study, a population-based sample of older Americans born before 1947, and 3 measures of physical performance. Nested ordinary least squares models examine whether childhood and adult health and SES mediate race/ethnic differences in performance.


We find large and significant race/ethnic and nativity differences in lung function, grip strength, and gait speed. Adjusting for childhood and current adult health and SES reduces race/ethnic differences in physical performance but does not eliminate them entirely. Childhood health and SES as well as more proximal levels of SES are important determinants of race/ethnic disparities in later life physical performance.


The analysis highlights that a large proportion of race/ethnic and nativity disparities result from health and socioeconomic disadvantages in both early life and adulthood and thus suggests multiple intervention points at which disparities can be reduced.

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