Disability Among Older Americans DeclinesPicture of an empty wheelchair

Chronic disability among older Americans has dropped dramatically during the past two decades, according to a new study. The study suggests that older Americans’ health and function continue to improve at this critical time in the aging of the population.

The eagerly anticipated update of the last assessment of data from the National Long-Term Care Surveys (NLTCS) in 2001 was published on November 28, 2006, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Funded through a cooperative agreement between NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) and Duke University, the NLTCS is a periodic survey of approximately 20,000 Medicare enrollees.

Dr. Kenneth G. Manton and his colleagues at Duke performed the latest analysis. They found that the prevalence of chronic disability among those 65 and older fell from 26.5% in 1982 to 19% in 2004/2005. The oldest age group, 85 and older, showed the most progress. Chronic disability rates decreased among those with both severe and less severe impairments, with the greatest improvements among the most severely impaired. Environmental modifications, assistive technologies and biomedical advances are all factors that likely contributed to these improvements.

The annual rate of decline in disability averaged 1.52% annually over the 22-year time span. However, the rate of decline in disability accelerated, from 0.6% in 1984 to 2.2% in 2004/2005. If these positive trends continue, the lower chronic disability rates among older adults could help bolster the Medicare program’s fiscal health.

“The challenge now is to see how this trend can be maintained and accelerated, especially in the face of increasing obesity,” said Dr. Richard Suzman, director of NIA’s Behavioral and Social Research Program. “Doing so over the next several decades will significantly lessen the societal impact of the aging of the baby-boom generation.”