The prospect of achieving that goal isn't promising. A study published today by researchers at UCLA is the first to show that disability trends among older Americans are getting worse. Disabilities were assessed through measures that recorded a person's ability to perform various tasks, such as being able to walk up a flight of stairs, manage personal finances and perform household chores.
In the 1980s and 1990s, studies showed disability rates among older Americans were improving. But the new study compared data from two time periods, 1988 through 1994 and 1999 through 2004, and found that disability rates rose among people ages 60 to 69. The greatest increases were seen among non-whites and people who were overweight or obese.
The study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, found no changes in disability rates among people ages 70 to 79. Among people ages 80 and older, improvements in disability were seen, especially among women.
The study doesn't pinpoint why more people are becoming disabled in their later years, although the obesity epidemic appears to be the major factor, said the lead author of the study, Teresa E. Seeman, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.
"Normal-weight individuals do not show a trend of increasing disabilities," she said. "It does seem to be that the increase is restricted to the groups that are overweight and obese. But part of the problem is that more and more people are overweight and obese."
The people in their 60s who show increasing rates of disability are likely "harbingers" for the baby boom generation, Seeman said, an observation that should be considered in Washington during the debate over health care reform.
"I think this kind of data highlights the importance of this [health care] debate," she said. "How do we provide health care people need and services that will prevent disability?"
The study is published today in the American Journal of Public Health.
-- Shari Roan
Photo credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times