Date of this Version
Social Science & Medicine 72:8 (April 2011), pp. 1236–1248; doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.02.034
A number of studies have demonstrated wide disparities in health among racial/ethnic groups and by gender, yet few have examined how race/ethnicity and gender intersect or combine to affect the health of older adults. The tendency of prior research to treat race/ethnicity and gender separately has potentially obscured important differences in how health is produced and maintained, undermining efforts to eliminate health disparities. The current study extends previous research by taking an intersectionality approach (Mullings & Schulz, 2006), grounded in life course theory, conceptualizing and modeling trajectories of functional limitations as dynamic life course processes that are jointly and simultaneously defined by race/ethnicity and gender. Data from the nationally representative 1994–2006 US Health and Retirement Study and growth curve models are utilized to examine racial/ethnic/gender differences in intra-individual change in functional limitations among White, Black and Mexican American Men and Women, and the extent to which differences in life course capital account for group disparities in initial health status and rates of change with age. Results support an intersectionality approach, with all demographic groups exhibiting worse functional limitation trajectories than White Men. Whereas White Men had the lowest disability levels at baseline, White Women and racial/ethnic minority Men had intermediate disability levels and Black and Hispanic Women had the highest disability levels. These health disparities remained stable with age—except among Black Women who experience a trajectory of accelerated disablement. Dissimilar early life social origins, adult socioeconomic status, marital status, and health behaviors explain the racial/ethnic disparities in functional limitations among Men but only partially explain the disparities among Women. Net of controls for life course capital, Women of all racial/ethnic groups have higher levels of functional limitations relative to White Men and Men of the same race/ethnicity. Findings highlight the utility of an intersectionality approach to understanding health disparities.