Disabilities Sidelining Middle-Age Adults

More Baby Boomers Reporting Mobility Problems, Study Finds

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

April 9, 2010 -- Baby boomers are increasingly reporting mobility-related problems, such as climbing stairs, stooping down, and getting out of bed, new research shows.

The finding, an omen for the future of health care costs, comes from 1997-2007 data from the National Health Interview Survey, in which more than 18,000 people aged 50-64 were asked about any mobility problems.

These problems included stooping, bending, or kneeling, climbing 10 stairs, standing or sitting for two hours, walking a quarter mile, lifting and carrying objects weighing 10 pounds, grasping small items, pushing or pulling a large object, and reaching overhead.

The researchers say more than 40% of people in that age group reported they had trouble with at least one of the physical functions, and that many said they had problems doing two or more. Difficulty in four specific functions -- stooping, standing two hours, walking a quarter mile, and climbing 10 steps without resting -- significantly increased over the 11-year period studied.

Also, they noted a significant increase in the number of people who reported needing help with personal care activities, such as getting around inside their homes and getting into or out of a bed or chair.

"Over the same period, there also was a significant increase in the reports of use of special equipment," such as a cane, wheelchair, special bed, or telephone, the authors write.

The study is published in the April edition of the journal Health Affairs.

Arthritis, Diabetes Contribute to Disability

Arthritis or rheumatism was the most common condition associated with difficulty with a physical function. Other common conditions included neurologic problems, back or neck conditions, bone and joint injuries, lung problems, depression, and anxiety.

The study has "important implications for future health spending, demand for health care workers, and prospects for continued labor-force participation, and access to health insurance through employers," the authors write.

The researchers say the study "also highlights a prominent and growing role for diabetes as a cause of disability" among people 50 to 64.

In contrast to the disability increase found in baby boomers, the researchers, from the RAND Corp. think tank and the University of Michigan, reported a decline in disability problems among Americans 65 and over.

The researchers say the reason for the increase in mobility problems among boomers is not clear, but that many reporting such difficulties also said they had health problems that began when they were in their 30s and 40s.

"Although the overall rate of needing help with personal care among this group remains very low -- less than 2% -- this rise in disability is reason for concern," Linda Martin, PhD, the study's lead author and a senior fellow at RAND, says in a news release. "It does not bode well for future trends for the 65 and older population, plus there are substantial personal and societal costs of carrying for people of any age who need help."

The researchers say the increases in conditions causing disability may reflect real deterioration of health, or perhaps improved awareness of such problems and early diagnosis and treatment.

Also, the researchers say improved medical care has extended the lives of people whose disabilities started early in life, and might not have lived to age 50 in earlier decades.

Though obesity is cited as a major cause of health problems, it was not mentioned as an important cause of limitations by those reporting mobility issues, the researchers say.

"We have this uptick of people in their 50s and early 60s who say they need help with their daily activities of living and we're not sure why," Vicki A. Freeman, PhD, a professor at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, says in the news release. "But the patterns suggest the need for prevention and early intervention before the age of Medicare eligibility."


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SOURCES: News release, RAND Corp.

Martin, L. Health Affairs, April 2010, vol 29.

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