Leading Causes of Disability

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 04, 2013
4 min read

Your odds of becoming disabled before you retire are about 1 in 3. And some of the causes of disability might surprise you. Some conditions that cause people to miss work include:

Here's a closer look at some of the most common disabling conditions -- and some tips on how to protect yourself from the high medical bills that may come with them.

Arthritis and other musculoskeletal problems. These are the most common causes of long-term disability. They make up as much as a third of all disability cases. Arthritis is probably the biggest single cause.

About 1 in 3 people say arthritis affects their ability to do their jobs in some way, according to the CDC.

Other muscle and joint problems -- bad backs, bones that never mend, bad hips -- are common causes of disability too, says Matt Tassey. He's a former chairman of the nonprofit Life and Health Insurance Foundation for Education (LIFE).

Heart disease and stroke. People may live with heart disease for years or decades. It can severely limit their ability to work. Studies estimate that heart disease is now the reason for 17% of all health costs in the U.S.

Cancer. While cancer itself can be disabling, treatments such as surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can also make it difficult to work.

"Cancer is the fastest-growing cause for disability claims," Tassey says. Why? In part, this reflects a rising rate of cancer, he says. It could also result from more effective treatment. "We're doing medical miracles today," he says. "People are living much longer after a cancer diagnosis than they once did."  <!--td {border: 1px solid #ccc;}br {mso-data-placement:same-cell;}--><!--td {border: 1px solid #ccc;}br {mso-data-placement:same-cell;}--> Learn more about the types of cancers that qualify for disability.

Mental health problems. You might think of disability as physical, but mental health problems can make work difficult or impossible. Depression, bipolar disorder, and other conditions can be as disabling as any physical illness.

Mental health problems are the most common reason that people file for Social Security disability, Tassey says.

Diabetes. As a cause of disability, diabetes is rising fast, Tassey says. Along with obesity, it's linked to a number of serious health problems, like heart disease.

Diabetes is a costly disease to manage, too, in part because of the drugs and supplies.

Nervous system disorders. These include a number of conditions that affect the brain or nerves, such as:

MS is a leading cause of disability in young adults. It most often appears between ages 20 and 40.

Pregnancy. You might not think about pregnancy as a disabling condition. Since most women in the U.S. don't get paid maternity leave, it effectively is.

The Family and Medical Leave Act offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. However, it isn't available to many women who:

  • Are self-employed
  • Work at small businesses
  • Haven't worked long enough with an employer to be eligible

Some employers and a few states offer women short-term disability payments for pregnancy. The rest have to get by using sick days and vacation.

Long-term disability caused by pregnancy is relatively rare. Women who wind up needing bed rest while they're pregnant or who suffer from complications afterward -- like postpartum depression -- can face serious financial stress.

Accidents. Many people assume accidents are the most likely cause of disability. But they are actually the cause of less than 10% of disability cases.

What can you do to guard against the risks of disability and high medical bills? Here are some tips from the experts.

Go over your health insurance policy. Don't just assume your coverage is good. Read the booklet your insurer sends. Ask your benefits advisor at work if you have questions.

Settling health insurance issues is important before you get sick. The health care reform law will prohibit insurers from denying people coverage because of preexisting conditions. But it won't take effect for adults until 2014.

Get disability insurance. See if you can get it through work. You should purchase it as soon as possible. Trying to get disability insurance when you're older -- or diagnosed with a health problem -- is a lot more difficult.

Look into long-term-care insurance. It's not right or affordable for everyone. But long-term-care insurance will cover some of the costs if you become disabled and need home health care or a stay in a nursing home.

Improve your lifestyle. Take these commonsense steps to protect your health:

  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a healthy diet and lose weight if needed.
  • Lessen your stress.
  • Get enough sleep.

Improving your lifestyle could dramatically lower your risk of many conditions, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer

Even if you already have been diagnosed with a health problem, changing your habits can still have a big benefit.

Take an honest assessment of your risks and do what you can to lower them. That way you can help minimize the risk of a financial setback.

"Your income pays for everything -- your mortgage, your savings, your kids' college, and your retirement," says Barry Lundquist, president of the nonprofit Council for Disability Awareness. "Your ability to work is your greatest asset. You should do what you can to protect it."