Inequities in the golden years: How wealth shapes healthy and work-free life

Insights Report
Research Dialogue

For the most versus least wealthy individuals, how different is disability-free life expectancy at age 65 and how have those differences changed over time?


Recent studies have shown that gains in life expectancy have accrued unequally, with gaps as large as 15 years between men in the top and bottom 1% of the income distribution. Likewise, gains in healthy life expectancy—which have outpaced life expectancy’s overall growth—have also accrued unequally. This paper explores the intersection of these findings, analyzing changes in disability-free life expectancy and work-free life expectancy over time and between wealth groups. The results help shed light on the composition of aggregate gains in life expectancy and health at older ages, which in turn helps inform how individuals and institutions can better prepare for retirement.

Key Insights

  • The additional years lived by the wealthy are not just extensions of life with illness, but rather increases in healthy years of life.
  • The additional healthy years among wealthly in later live has increased compared to those with less wealth, resulting in growing inequality in healthy life expectancy.
  • Wealthier individuals are able to work more years due to their healthier lives and have more work-free years in retirement.

Many policies that affect aging populations can be targeted to generate different benefits across wealth and income groups.


The researchers’ examined individual-level data from the 1996 through 2018 waves of the Health and Retirement Study, which provides rich information on the lives of older individuals, including their wealth, health and employment.

The effect of wealth quartiles on disability and work


Hessam Bavafa

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Anita Mukherjee

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Tyler Q. Welch

University of Wisconsin-Madison

Sign up for the TIAA Institute newsletter

Get the latest research and insights straight in your inbox

We are sorry.

The service that receives your request is unavailable at the moment. Please try again.