In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Physical Health and Aging

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Theories and Frameworks
  • Chronic Disease
  • Functioning and Disability
  • Interventions
  • Neighborhoods and Health
  • Racial and Ethnic Differences in Health
  • Other Socio-Demographic Influences on Health
  • Mortality and the Last Year of Life
  • End-of-Life Care

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section

  • Rare and Orphan Diseases and Social Work Practice
  • Social Work Practice with Transgender and Gender Expansive Youth
  • Unaccompanied Immigrant and Refugee Children
  • Find more forthcoming articles...


Social Work Physical Health and Aging
Amanda Lehning
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0184


The US population is aging, and according to the US Census Bureau approximately 20 percent of Americans will be age sixty-five and older by 2030, compared to a little more than 13 percent today. Older adults experience a wide range of trajectories in physical health and functioning as they age. For example, studies of centenarians demonstrate that members of this age group can remain very healthy. However, older adults are at a higher risk for chronic illness and disability compared to younger age groups. For example, according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics, more than half of adults age sixty-five and older have at least one diagnosed chronic disease (e.g., hypertension, heart disease, diabetes) and 41 percent have at least one functional limitation. In addition, the eighty-five and older population, sometimes referred to as the “oldest old,” is the fastest growing segment of the US population and is expected to triple by 2050. The oldest old experience more physical health problems than the young-old. For example, nearly half of those ages eighty-five and older have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, compared to about 12 percent of those over sixty-five. It is therefore clear that many social workers will serve clients who are older, and the majority of these clients will be facing significant health limitations. These health limitations, however, are not due solely to individual health behaviors. Instead, physical health in later life is the result of a number of biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors, including race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and social support. Effective interventions should take into account the biopsychosocial characteristics that influence health in later life. These characteristics also contribute to mortality risk, preferences for end-of-life care, and experiences during the dying process.


Textbooks that focus solely on physical health and aging do not tend to be written by social workers or social work academics. However, a number of excellent aging and social work textbooks include chapters with key information regarding changes in physical health among older adults and some of the challenges associated with these changes. These textbooks include Berkman and Harootyan 2003, McInnis-Dittrich 2014, and Hooyman and Kiyak 2011. From a sociology perspective, both Quadagno 2014 and Morgan and Kunkel 2011 are devoted partly to physical health within the context of intersectionality and diversity. Textbooks from other fields include more information about physical health, such as Ferrini and Ferrini 2013 and Satariano 2006.

  • Berkman, Barbara, and Linda Harootyan, eds. 2003. Social work and health care in an aging society: Education, policy, practice, and research. New York: Springer.

    Relevant chapters for understanding physical health include (1) “Self-Health Care by Urban, African American Elders,” (2) “Physical Health and Economic Well-Being of Older African American Women,” and (3) “Cultural Considerations in Health Care and Quality of Life.”

  • Ferrini, Rebecca, and Armeda Ferrini. 2013. Health in the later years. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Designed for either undergraduate or graduate students preparing for a career in health and human services, the authors discuss factors that influence the health of older adults, including chronic diseases, physical activity, nutrition, and sexuality.

  • Hooyman, Nancy R., and H. Suman Kiyak. 2011. Social gerontology: A multidisciplinary perspective. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson Education.

    Relevant chapters include (1) “Social Consequences of Physical Aging,” (2) “Managing Chronic Diseases and Promoting Well-Being in Old Age,” (3) “Cognitive Changes with Aging,” (4) “Death, Dying, Bereavement, and Widowhood,” and (5) “Health and Long-Term Care Policy and Programs.”

  • McInnis-Dittrich, Kathleen. 2014. Social work with older adults. 3d ed. Boston: Pearson.

    Physical health discussed in terms of biopsychosocial assessment, planning, and implementing appropriate social work interventions.

  • Morgan, Leslia A., and Suzanne R. Kunkel. 2011. Aging, society, and the life course. 4th ed. New York: Springer.

    Chapter titled “Aging and Health: Individuals, Institutions, and Policies” discusses a wide variety of relevant topics to physical health, including physical changes that accompany aging, chronic conditions and functional limitations, health disparities, and access to health care.

  • Quadagno, Jill. 2014. Aging and the life course: An introduction to social gerontology. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    Emphasis on the intersectionality of class, race, gender, and culture and how these aspects of one’s identity affect quality of life, including physical health.

  • Satariano, William. 2006. Epidemiology of aging: An ecological approach. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

    Overview of topics in the epidemiology of aging, including depression, mortality, and physical functioning, and discussion of the ways they are interrelated.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.