May 5, 2009 -- A new study shows that women, though likely to live longer than men, are up to two and a half times more likely to suffer from disabilities than men as seniors.
Researchers at the Duke University Medical Center examined the records of 5,888 people 65 and over; they found that women are more likely than men to have disabling conditions such as arthritis and obesity. Those two conditions accounted for up to 48% of the gender gap in disability, the researchers say.
The findings were presented at the annual Scientific Meeting of the American Geriatrics Society.
"While women tend to live longer than men, this study shows that they are at greater risk of living with disability and much of the excess disability is attributable to higher rates of obesity and arthritis," says study researcher Heather Whitson, MD.
That's important, she adds, because the result of higher obesity and arthritis rates is a "loss of independence in their old age."
The researchers say the study is the first to isolate the impact of specific chronic health conditions on the disparity in disability rates between older men and women. The researchers say they are surprised to see the extent to which the chronic conditions explain the gender difference in disability.
"The reason for this discrepancy in disability has not been well understood, but we found that chronic health conditions that women experience in greater numbers than men may explain part of that gap," says Harvey Jay Cohen, MD, senior author of the study and director of Duke's Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.
Weight and Disability
Women have a natural tendency to gain more weight than men over their life span, but they may be more motivated to work harder to maintain a healthy weight "if they realize that those extra pounds make it more likely that they will be disabled in later years, potentially becoming a burden to their children or requiring a nursing home," says Whitson.
The researchers extracted their data from the Cardiovascular Health Study, which asked people about their ability to perform common tasks of daily living, such as eating, grooming, dressing themselves, managing money, and upper and lower body movement, which included grasping, walking, climbing stairs, and reaching.
The researchers say the study draws attention to two health trends that could worsen the quality of life of women in the future.
As the nation's obesity rate continues to climb, so will the rates of disability in older adults, say the study authors. And because women are more likely than men to develop obesity, disability will plague them to a greater degree late in life, the study shows.
If rates of cardiovascular disease and emphysema start to increase for women, then disability in elderly women will become an even bigger problem.
"We need to help women make better decisions early in life," Cohen says.
The researchers next plan to investigate whether older disabled women can regain function if they undergo treatment to help them control their weight and arthritis pain. A next step would then be to investigate ways to prevent obesity and arthritis in younger populations.