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Development of reserves over the life course and onset of vulnerability in later life


This Review develops a theoretical framework for the development and onset of vulnerability in later life based on the concept of reserves. We stress the advantages of using the concept of reserves in interdisciplinary life-course studies, compared with related concepts such as resources and capital. We enrich the definition of vulnerability as a lack of reserves and a reduced capacity of an individual to restore reserves. Two dimensions of reserves, originating from lifespan psychology and gerontology, are of particular importance: their constitution and sustainability by behaviours and interaction with the environment (the ‘use it or lose it’ paradigm) and the presence of thresholds, below which functioning becomes highly challenging. This heuristic approach reveals the potential for a conceptualization of reserves and is exemplified in an empirical illustration. Further interdisciplinary research based on the concept is needed.

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Fig. 1
Fig. 2: Trajectories of verbal fluency and memory recall with aging by education status among Europeans aged 50 years and older (SHARE data).
Fig. 3: Trajectories of disability (ADL, IADL) with aging by job skill status among Europeans aged 50 years and older (SHARE data).


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We thank S. Sieber and B. Cheval for data management of the SHARE database. This paper used data from SHARE Waves 1, 2, 3 (SHARELIFE), 4, 5 and 6 (DOIs: 10.6103/SHARE.w1.600, 10.6103/SHARE.w2.600, 10.6103/SHARE.w3.600, 10.6103/SHARE.w4.600, 10.6103/SHARE.w5.600, 10.6103/SHARE.w6.600). The SHARE data collection has been primarily funded by the European Commission through FP5 (QLK6-CT-2001-00360), FP6 (SHARE-I3: RII-CT-2006-062193, COMPARE: CIT5-CT-2005-028857, SHARELIFE: CIT4-CT-2006-028812) and FP7 (SHARE-PREP: N°211909, SHARE-LEAP: N°227822, SHARE M4: N°261982). Additional funding from the German Ministry of Education and Research, the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, the US National Institute on Aging (U01_AG09740-13S2, P01_AG005842, P01_AG08291, P30_AG12815, R21_AG025169, Y1-AG-4553-01, IAG_BSR06-11, OGHA_04-064, HHSN271201300071C) and from various national funding sources is gratefully acknowledged (see This study was supported by the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research ‘LIVES – Overcoming Vulnerability: Life Course Perspectives’. LIVES is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant number 51NF40-160590) and jointly hosted by the Universities of Lausanne and Geneva. The authors are grateful to the Swiss National Science Foundation for its financial assistance. The funders had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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All authors designed and wrote the paper. Data analysis was conducted by S.C.

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Correspondence to Stéphane Cullati.

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Cullati, S., Kliegel, M. & Widmer, E. Development of reserves over the life course and onset of vulnerability in later life. Nat Hum Behav 2, 551–558 (2018).

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