Easing poverty boosts health for aging Mexicans

Participants receiving extra income were more likely to visit a doctor and buy medicine. They were less likely to run out of food, report being hungry often, or report not eating all day. Above, a woman sells dresses in Oaxaca, Mexico. (Credit: iStockphoto)

Raising the incomes of poor, elderly people in developing countries by $67 a month can significantly improve their health and well-being, particularly in lung function and memory, researchers report.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, compared 2,474 residents 70 years and older of two Mexican cities in the state of Yucatan. Those in the city of Motul received no extra income, while those in Valladolid received a 44 percent increase in average household income.


After six months, participants in Valladolid showed significant improvements in lung function and memory. The study’s authors also found that participants spent a significant portion of the extra money on doctor visits, medications, and food.

“Both state and national governments in Mexico, like those throughout Latin America, have expanded pension programs in recent years,” says study coauthor Emma Aguila, assistant professor at the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy.

“This study shows that such programs can benefit greatly the growing older population in Mexico and developing nations facing similar demographic challenges.”

Memory and medicine

“We found strong evidence that supplementing the income of poor, elderly populations can have significant benefits to health and well-being, even in the short run, says coauthor Arie Kapteyn, professor of economics and executive director of the Center for Economic and Social Research at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

On tests before and after the six-month experiment, the average participant with supplemented income saw improvements in immediate and delayed memory.

Participants were also more likely to visit a doctor and buy medicine. They were less likely to run out of food, report being hungry often, or report not eating all day. They were also less likely to report not being able to undertake an activity because of lack of money.

The study’s authors note fears that the extra income could be undone by family members reducing financial transfers to their elderly relatives appeared to be unfounded. While transfers from family members significantly declined over time in the treatment group, the relative decline was only on average 36 percent of the income supplement.

Aging populations

Mexico, along with many other low- to middle-income countries, is experiencing a rapid aging of its population, and poverty among elderly residents there is far more prevalent than among the young.

From 2000 to 2050, the percentage of Mexicans over age 65 is expected to increase more than fourfold, from 5 percent to 22 percent. During that time, the percentage of the population aged 80 and up is projected to rise from 1 percent to 6 percent.

“Elderly populations are growing around the world,” says study coauthor James P. Smith, chair in labor markets and demographic studies at RAND. “This work provides insight on what pension programs might accomplish in developing nations, which are beginning to address these issues.”

The state of Yucatan, the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health, and the RAND Corp. supported the work.

Source: USC