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 high future disability rates for baby boomers.
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 them, said lead author Teresa Seeman, a professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The oldest people in the survey grew up with better nutrition and had better medical treatments than previous generations, 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.”
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 or 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 normal, 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 a major factor; the greatest increases in disability were among nonwhites 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.”