expected to work productively, what kinds of tasks they are best suited for, and if their productivity can be increased through cost-effective accommodations and support programs in the workplace and community. Second, policy makers want to know how to maximize older workers’ opportunities for making employment-related choices that promote health, safety, and life satisfaction in their later years. To date, concern among policy makers about the aging of the population has tended to focus on the adequacy of Medicare and Social Security trust funds, mechanisms for retirement savings, and the need for long-term care. Far less attention has been paid to the health and safety needs of older American workers.
Older workers differ from their younger counterparts in a variety of physical/biological, psychological/mental, and social dimensions. In some cases these reflect normative changes of aging (for example, presbyopia), while in others they represent age-dependent increases in the likelihood of developing various abnormal conditions, such as coronary artery disease. These age-related differences, whether normative or pathologic, may cause disadvantages to older workers because their work performance is diminished relative to younger workers or because their susceptibility to environmental hazards is increased. In other cases, however, changes associated with age (e.g., increased experience) may actually enhance capabilities and performance at work.
Age-related changes that are most likely important to job exposures and job experience among older workers occur in the following organ systems: skeletal muscle, bone, vision, hearing, pulmonary function, skin, metabolism, and immunity. More generally, the slope of age-related changes in organs or systems declines at a greater rate with increasing age. However, cognitive and adaptive skills that come with experience and extensive training are relevant to meeting job challenges and changes. Furthermore, most occupations (except, for example, some public safety occupations) usually do not require performance at full individual capacity. Workplace or other exposures may cause decrements in function from full capacity without affecting work performance or function at usual levels.
The health, function, and survivorship of each older worker cohort will depend in part on exposures and events that occurred earlier in life in addition to environmental (including work) exposures concurrent with aging. Most general physiological and biological functions in older persons tend to have greater variation than in younger persons (there are exceptions in the realm of cognitive variables), and so performance relying on those functions often does not correlate very well with chronological age. Age-related changes may be accompanied by the presence of comorbidity. There