Americans entering their 70s today are experiencing more disabilities in old age than did the previous generation, researchers announced Thursday. The shift in health fortunes comes as a surprise and predicts future high disability rates for the baby boomers as well.
The study is the first to foretell the end of a two-decade trend in which people appeared to be functioning better in old age than those who came before, said lead author Teresa E. Seeman, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
The oldest people in the survey had grown up with better nutrition and had better medical treatments, resulting in less disability, Seeman said. “The hope was, this was a portent of good things to come as this population got larger. But ours is the first data to suggest disability rates may be going up. If it’s true, it certainly suggests the baby boomers, whatever health benefits they’ve enjoyed up until now, may not enjoy such a rosy older age.”
Seeman and her colleagues compared data from two large national health and nutrition surveys, one conducted from 1988 to 1994 and another from 1999 to 2004. Among people 80 and older, the data showed improvements in disability rates over time, especially among women. There was no change in disability rates among people in their 70s. However, disability rates rose among people in their 60s.
Disability measurements assess how well an individual can perform daily activities, such as walking up a flight of stairs, managing personal finances and performing household chores.
The study, funded by the National Institute on Aging and published in the American Journal of Public Health, doesn’t explain why more people are becoming disabled as they enter their later years. But, Seeman said, rising levels of obesity appear to be the major factor; the greatest increases in disabilities were among non-whites and people who were obese or overweight.
“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.”
Obesity affects health in a number of ways, said Ellen L. Idler, a professor of sociology and epidemiology at Emory University and a gerontology expert. She was not involved in the study.
“The strain of excess weight on joints, the cardiovascular effects -- definitely. Trends in obesity would lead you to expect more disabilities,” she said.
More people today survive heart attacks and strokes but may be left with related disabilities, she added. And with obesity rates even higher among younger and middle-age people, disability rates may continue to climb, Idler said.
Public health efforts targeting obesity may be the best way to address disabilities, Seeman said. But specific therapies and lifestyle changes can also help people regain their ability to function normally.
“Even in older age, people have an amazing ability to change behavior and for that to change health risk,” she said. “If we don’t do anything, we’re going to face an older population that is bigger and much more disabled.”