What Are the Leading Causes of Disability?

Medically Reviewed on 4/20/2022
What Are the Leading Causes of Disability?
A disability impairs a person’s functioning in their environment and may result from one of these ten leading causes.

According to the Centers for Diseases and Prevention, a disability is a physical or mental condition (impairment) that makes it more difficult for a person to undertake specific activities (activity limitation) and interact with the environment around them (participation restrictions).

More than one in every four U.S. citizens aged 18 to 64 years has a disability. These people have significant difficulties, such as:

  • Walking
  • Climbing stairs
  • Hearing
  • Seeing
  • Focusing
  • Remembering
  • Making decisions

Individuals with impairments are three times more prone to suffer heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer than adults without disabilities.

Aerobic physical exercise can help minimize the effect of several chronic conditions. However, approximately half of all people with disabilities do not engage in any aerobic physical activity during their free time.

10 leading causes of disabilities

  1. Arthritis
    • Arthritis is a condition where the multiple joints in the body swell and stiffen and cause pain with movement. Arthritis is the most common cause of disability where the person cannot walk or climb stairs without extra effort or pain.
    • In severe arthritis cases, the movement of the joints is restricted, and the person will not be able to move the joints. Eventually, the person may depend on a wheelchair for locomotion.
    • Arthritis is of various types depending on the factors that cause defects in the joints. Specific types of joints are affected by a certain type of arthritis. They include:
      • Osteoarthritis: Caused by wear and tear of the cartilage in the joints.
      • Rheumatoid arthritis: An autoimmune, inflammatory disease that causes inflammation and swelling of joints.
      • Psoriatic arthritis: Joints are affected in people with psoriasis.
      • Juvenile arthritis: Inflammation and swelling of joints in children younger than 16 years of age.
  2. Back pain
    • Back pain is one of the most frequent medical issues, impacting 8 out of 10 people at some time in their lives. Back pain can range from a subtle, continuous aching to acute, stabbing pain.
      • Acute back pain appears quickly and lasts for a few days to a few weeks.
      • Chronic back pain is defined as discomfort that lasts for more than three months.
    • Most of the time, the pain is not caused by anything major and will go away on its own. The treatment for back pain is determined by the type of pain, location, and the cause. The options for treating back pain include:
      • Hot or cold packs
      • Exercise
      • Medications
      • Complementary therapies, such as physiotherapy and massages
      • Surgery
  3. Ischemic heart disease
    • Ischemic heart disease is also called coronary heart disease and coronary artery disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ischemic heart disease is the most frequent kind of heart disease in the United States. It is the most common cause of a heart attack.
    • This condition is mostly caused by the accumulation of cholesterol particles in the circulation on the walls of the arteries that carry blood to the heart muscle. Plaques, which are deposits that develop over time, may form. Inflammation is the cause of these plaques.
    • Breathlessness with exertion or at rest, leading to the inability to walk for prolonged hours, unable to lift heavy objects, and fatigue are some common abnormalities or disabilities seen in people with ischemic heart disease.
    • Medications, lifestyle modifications, and surgery are the options to treat ischemic heart disease.
  4. Depression
    • Depression is one of the leading causes of disability globally. Depression, also called a major depressive disorder, is a mood illness that causes the person to feel unhappy or uninterested in life regularly.
    • Most people experience sadness or depression at times. It is a natural reaction to loss or life's difficulties. When acute depression, including feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness, lasts for several days to weeks and prevents the person from living their life, it may be more than grief.
    • There is no complete cure for depression. The symptoms may fade over time, but the illness will not. However, with proper care and treatment, the person can achieve remission and live a long and healthy life.
  5. Cancer
    • Cancer is one of the leading causes of disability and mortality worldwide. Cancer is a common word that refers to a wide range of illnesses that can affect any region of the body. Malignant tumors and neoplasms are other words for cancer.
    • One distinguishing aspect of cancer is the fast formation of abnormal cells that do not function properly, and they expand beyond their normal borders. They can eventually infect neighboring sections of the body and migrate to other organs; this process is called metastasis. The leading cause of cancer disability is widespread metastasis.
  6. Stroke
    • Stroke is the cause of long-term disability or permanent loss of function. The effects of a stroke depend on which part of the brain is damaged and the extent of the damage.
    • The most prevalent kinds of impairment following a stroke include:
      • Impaired speech
      • Limited physical abilities
      • Weakness or paralysis of limbs on one side of the body
      • Difficulties grasping or holding items
      • Delayed capacity to communicate
    • Early treatment and rehabilitation following a stroke can increase recovery and allow many people to regain many abilities.
  7. Alzheimer’s
    • Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia. Dementia refers to a set of symptoms linked with a progressive deterioration in brain function. It has the potential to impair:
      • Memory
      • Reasoning skills
      • Mental capacities
    • The causes of Alzheimer's disease are unknown although several factors are likely to raise the chances of having the condition. They include:
      • Advancing age
      • A family history of the condition
      • Untreated depression (depression may be the cause of Alzheimer’s, but it is also a symptom of Alzheimer’s)
      • Cardiovascular disease
    • There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but supportive treatment with drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, and psychological support from family may help relieve some of the symptoms.
  8. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
    • COPD is a widespread, preventable, and curable chronic lung disease that affects all worldwide.
    • COPD is sometimes called "emphysema" or "chronic bronchitis."
    • Abnormalities in the tiny airways of the lungs restrict airflow. A variety of factors contribute to the narrowing of the airways. Parts of the lung may be destroyed, mucus may obstruct the airways and the airway lining may be inflamed and swollen.
    • COPD and asthma are two different conditions that share symptoms, such as cough, wheezing, and trouble breathing, and people may suffer from both.
  9. Diabetes mellitus
    • Diabetes mellitus is one of the most serious worldwide public health issues, placing a significant global burden on both public health and socioeconomic development. Although the incidence of diabetes has begun to decline in certain nations, the prevalence of diabetes has climbed in most other industrialized and developing countries in recent decades.
    • Diabetes mellitus is a chronic condition characterized by the presence of high levels of blood glucose constantly. This leads to abnormalities in several organs, such as the cardiovascular system, kidneys, eyes, and nerves, causing disabilities.
    • Early detection and timely treatment with appropriate medications may delay the damage to organs caused by high levels of glucose preventing mortality.
  10. Kidney diseases
    • Over the last few decades, chronic kidney disease (CKD) has become a global public health burden. Because CKD is irreversible, it worsens with time, and most patients advance to end-stage renal disease (ESRD) where the kidney functions cease. These persons often struggle with dialysis-related complications and other disabilities, impeding full-time work.
    • Severe cases of CKD and ESRD require dialysis or kidney transplantation to prolong life expectancy. About 10 percent of the population globally is affected by CKD.


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Medically Reviewed on 4/20/2022
Image Source: iStock image

Council for Disability Awareness. Chances Of Disability. https://disabilitycanhappen.org/common-causes/

Griffin RM. Leading Causes of Disability. https://www.webmd.com/health-insurance/features/top-causes-disability

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disability and Health Related Conditions. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/relatedconditions.html