socioeconomic status, health behaviors, the social environment, the use of medical care, and genes.

Recognizing the need for continuing research, as well as the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, the National Institute on Aging (which sponsored the 1994 workshop) commissioned a new panel to update the work and develop research recommendations. The panel’s specific mandate was to:

  • organize a 2-day workshop with leading researchers from a variety of disciplines and professional orientations to answer questions about the nature and extent of racial and ethnic differences in health in old age, the social and biological mechanisms involved, what studies would advance understanding of differences, and what opportunities exist for research on special populations or research in special areas such as the biology and genetics of aging; and

  • provide a short report summarizing the main lessons learned and providing recommendations for further work.

The panel’s summary of research findings, disciplinary issues, and possibilities for future research is covered in this volume. The commissioned papers, which were presented at the panel’s workshop in Washington, DC in 2002, appear in a companion volume (National Research Council, 2004; see the table of contents in the Appendix).

In addressing its charge, the panel was forced to confront a large and burgeoning theoretical and empirical literature that involves researchers from virtually all the medical, social, and behavioral sciences. The panel’s initial intention was to produce a short report of the state of knowledge, but it rapidly became apparent that current research provides no simple answers. What is currently known about the origins of racial and ethnic differences in health points in many different directions. This fundamental finding spurred the panel to produce a more comprehensive and complex report than was originally requested, detailing what is currently known about apparent health differences and the role and operation of each of the major risk factors involved. This work was seen as an important prerequisite for identifying the kind of research that might advance this field.

This report and the companion volume of papers update work reported on in the papers from an earlier Committee on Population Workshop (National Research Council, 1997). Many of the issues discussed in this volume are similar to those raised in the earlier one, but seen through different lenses and with different emphases.

In this chapter we consider why we focus on racial and ethnic groups and what groups we distinguish. We then characterize the health differences in late life that have been reported among racial and ethnic groups.



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