The Disabled: How and How Many May Surprise You

Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD

Feb. 23, 2001 -- We've all heard about aging baby boomers and the burden they're destined to put on our nation's healthcare system. It looks like that prediction is starting to become a reality.

A national survey including more than 50,000 people shows that older adults who suffer from chronic diseases such as arthritis, back problems, and heart troubles, also have higher rates of disabilities. In fact, health-related disabilities affect one in five adults, and those rates are rising.

The findings may be surprising, but they are heartening and send a clear message to millions of aging adults: living longer doesn't necessarily mean living healthier.

"Aging has a great potential to be immensely positive for society and we have to learn how to take advantage of that," S. Jay Olshansky, PhD. tells WebMD. "The good news is that a whole lot of healthy people will make it past 65 in the coming decades, and looking far younger than we've seen people at that age. The bad news is that we're going to have people whose joints have worn down at a rate that we've never seen, so we'll see more knee and hip replacements." Olshansky is professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

The new survey was conducted between 1996 and 1999 to learn about the national prevalence of adults with disabilities and their associated health conditions. The results are published in this week's issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The results showed that in 1999, 44 million adults reported having a disability, affecting slightly more women than men. More than 30 million adults had problems with activities such as climbing stairs or walking a few blocks. About two million people needed a wheelchair to get around and roughly seven million needed some other walking aid, such as a cane.

What causes all this disability? Arthritis and rheumatism were the most common ailments, attacking seven million people. Back or spine problems affect nearly seven million, and another three million people reported heart trouble or hardening of the arteries as their main health problem.

So what should we do about it? "Better disease prevention can reduce the prevalence ... of health conditions," says Olshansky. He says adults need to be more aware of what diseases cause disability. And they're not necessarily those things that kill us, he adds.

The number of people aged 65 and older has risen rapidly in the last couple of decades, and you can expect it to rise even more rapidly in the 21st century. "We are in for a demographic destiny of population aging never before seen," Olshansky says. It's inevitable and should not be considered bad news, he adds. "There are tremendous advantages to the wisdom that comes from living a long life."

And not only the aged benefit from some of that wisdom. Keeping an eye on health conditions and related disabilities can ultimately serve to benefit everyone in the long run. According to J.M. McNeil, author of the report, knowing about disabilities from health problems can help healthcare administrators set new policies, anticipate healthcare needs, assist state programs, direct health promotion and disease prevention efforts, and monitor national health objectives.