PUBLIC HEALTH
April 17, 2010

Middle-Aged Increasingly Disabled

The number of middle-aged Americans who say they cannot easily perform daily functions like climbing ten stairs has risen.

According to a new study in the April issue of Health Affairs, middle-aged Americans are suffering from an increasing number of disabilities, which could lead to considerable problems for the country’s health care system down the road. The study was carried out by researchers at the nonprofit group RAND Corporation, and funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

the number of people who said they suffered from some sort of health issue that made it hard for them to perform typical daily functions (like walking a quarter mile or walk up ten stairs without resting) rose significantly.

The researchers looked at data from participants, 50-64 years old, in the National Health Interview Survey, which consisted of questionnaires over a period of ten years. The participants lived in retirement or senior communities. During this time, the number of people who said they suffered from some sort of health issue that made it hard for them to perform typical daily functions (like walking a quarter mile or walk up ten stairs without resting) rose significantly.

While the participants were middle-aged, many said that their health problems started when they were younger – in their 30s or 40s. Some of the reasons for the decline in mobility included arthritis, diabetes, neck problems, or mood-related problems like depression and anxiety. Interestingly, the researchers note that obesity – an escalating concern in the U.S. – was not one of the health problems associated with reduced mobility.

Richard Suzman, who is the director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging, said that “[t]his a disappointing trend with potentially far-reaching and long-term negative consequences.”

“If people have such difficulties in middle age, how can we expect that this age group — today's baby boomers — will be able to take care of itself with advancing age?" Suzman asked. "If it continues, this trend could have a significant effect on the need for long-term care in the future."

There are a couple of explanations for the reduction in mobility seen in the study, according to the RAND press release, aside from a generally weakening population. It’s possible that people are simply more aware of their medical conditions than they were years ago, due to better medical care and awareness; alternatively, it may be that modern medicine is increasing the life-span of Americans who, years ago, might not have lived into or past middle-age.

"We have this uptick of people in their 50s and early 60s who say they need help with their daily activities of living and we're not sure why," said study coauthor Vicki A. Freedman of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. "But the patterns suggest the need for prevention and early intervention before the age of Medicare eligibility."

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