Because of changing workplace environments, job opportunities, and national and regional economic circumstances, maintaining the health and safety of older workers will become increasingly challenging as the number and proportion of older workers continue to grow. It is also likely that there will be important changes in the health status of succeeding cohorts of older workers in ways that may not be fully predictable. For example, overall health status and mortality of successive cohorts of Americans has been improving, but some persons with previously fatal diseases are now surviving to older adulthood and participating in the workforce. Thus, successive cohorts will require special consideration vis-à-vis future workplace threats to older workers. This section briefly reviews population and gerontological concepts relevant to aging, health, and work; delineates the current health and social characteristics of older workers; contrasts these characteristics with those of nonworking age mates; and defines a selected set of important issues related to maintaining optimal health in the face of age-related health changes.
Understanding the health of a given cohort of older workers is aided by important gerontological theory. Particularly important is the life course perspective on aging (Baltes, 1997), also discussed in previous chapters. The life course perspective suggests that a vast array of biological, social, and environmental factors that occur in child and adult development, beginning from conception, all play important roles in the nature and trajectory of aging. This concept acknowledges that the health, function, and survivorship of each older worker cohort will depend in part on exposures and events that occurred in the remote past, in addition to environmental exposures concurrent with aging—the subject of continuing epidemiological research. This trajectory may only be partially overcome by various clinical, social, and environmental interventions. Also, it is axiomatic that there is great interindividual variation in early developmental, genetic, and social factors within a particular birth cohort, and so it is not surprising that there are important differences among persons after 40 to 50 years of age in the capacity for various kinds of workplace activities and challenges. That is not to diminish the role of the social, political, physiochemical, and economic environment facing older workers, but only to point out that many determinants of aging outcomes are already in place.
It is likely that among the most important determinants of health and aging for older workers are the prior work experiences, in turn related to the levels of environmental exposures and hazards as well as the social and