New Findings on the Health of Older LGBT Adults

Two older lesbians hugging
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By Amie Newman |

In a new study, researchers offer insight into the health and well-being of aging lesbians, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) adults across the country. The study, published in The Gerontologist, is the largest to date to look at life events of LGBT adults related to identity development, work, relationships with family (both biological and families-of-choice), and their associations with health and quality of life.

The study was undertaken primarily by researchers at the University of Washington School of Social Work, who note that the LGBT population is extremely understudied. They estimate that about 2.4% of older adults in the United States currently self-identify as LGBT, including  2.7 million adults 50 years old and older, and 1.1 million age 65 and over. The number of adults 50 and older is expected to almost double by 2060. 

Older LGBT adults, in particular, have been overlooked by research, though their lives clearly contain unique experiences, challenges, and needs. Although they share common experiences with younger LGBT adults, these elders grew up, came out, and lived in more oppressive times. 

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As one study participant urges, “The LGBT community has stepped up in the past to address coming out, AIDS, and civil rights. The next wave has to be aging.”

On average, notes the research, LGBT older adults first came out in their twenties; often experiencing job-related discrimination (according to the study, among LGBT older adults, one in five has not been hired for a job and almost one in six has been fired because of their sexual orientation or gender identity). More had been in opposite-sex marriage than in same-sex marriage. For some, a lack of access to quality health care was common as well.

These kinds of stressors have had a health impact on their lives and put LGBT people at risk, with higher rates of disability, cardiovascular disease, depression, and social isolation. On the other hand, researchers also note that LGBT older adults have developed strong coping mechanisms to deal with the discrimination and stigma and are extremely resilient.

In fact, according to The National LGBT and Aging Center, a heartening 89 percent of older LGBT people feel positive about belonging to their LGBT communities and more than 90 percent “engage regularly in wellness activities.”

The study discussed here included 2,450 adults ages 50 to 100 years old. Researchers found that four clusters emerged from the research: “Retired Survivors” who were the oldest and one of the most prevalent groups; “Midlife Bloomers” who had first disclosed their LGBT identities in their mid-forties; “Beleaguered At-Risk” who had high rates of job-related discrimination and few social resources; and “Visibly Resourced” who had a “high degree of identity visibility and were socially and economically advantaged.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the physical and mental health of those in different clusters differed significantly, as did their quality-of-life. Those who are considered “Beleaguered At-Risk” fared the worst when it came to health and well-being indicators, while the “Visibly Resourced” fared the best.

There’s been far too little research on LGBT health, especially of people who have lived through the tremendous shifts in cultural attitudes toward sexual orientation and gender identity. 

Karen I. Fredriksen-Goldsen, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Washington School of Social Work and author of the study, said in a press release:

These articles provide the opportunity to consider how social, historical, and environmental contexts influence the health and well-being of LGBT older adults as we move forward in age-related research, services, and policies — especially if we are to understand the realities of older adulthood across diverse and vulnerable communities.

The insights gleaned from this study of aging among LGBT older adults can deepen our understanding of the richness, diversity, and resilience of lives across the life course.

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