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Multimorbidity, the presence of multiple chronic health conditions, generally starts in middle and older age but there is considerable heterogeneity in the trajectory of morbidity accumulation. This study aimed to clarify the number of distinct trajectories and the potential associations between race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status and these trajectories.


Data from 13,699 respondents (age ≥51) in the Health and Retirement Study between 1998 and 2016 were analyzed with growth mixture models. Nine prevalent self-reported morbidities (arthritis, cancer, cognitive impairment, depressive symptoms, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, lung disease, stroke) were summed for the morbidity count.


Three trajectories of morbidity accumulation were identified: low [starting with few morbidities and accumulating them slowly (i.e., low intercept and low slope); 80% of sample], increasing (i.e., low intercept and high slope; 9%), and high (i.e., high intercept and low slope; 11%). Compared to non-Hispanic (NH) White adults in covariate-adjusted models, NH Black adults had disadvantages while Hispanic adults had advantages. Our results suggest a protective effect of education for NH Black adults (i.e., racial health disparities observed at low education were ameliorated and then eliminated at increasing levels of education) and a reverse pattern for Hispanic adults (i.e., increasing levels of education was found to dampen the advantages Hispanic adults had at low education). Compared with NH White adults, higher levels of wealth were protective for both NH Black adults (i.e., reducing or reversing racial health disparities observed at low wealth) and Hispanic adults (i.e., increasing the initial health advantages observed at low wealth).


These findings have implications for addressing health disparities through more precise targeting of public health interventions. This work highlights the imperative to address socioeconomic inequalities that interact with race/ethnicity in complex ways to erode health.


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