Younger seniors reporting more disabilities

Growing obesity rates may be responsible for an increase in disabilities among Americans ages 60 to 69, a study says.

By Christine S. Moyer — Posted Dec. 9, 2009

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Americans in their 60s are living with more disabilities than did their cohorts from previous generations. And that could overwhelm the country's health care system, according to a study published online Nov. 12 by the American Journal of Public Health (link).

The authors compared two National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data sets, for 1988-1994 and for 1999-2004, to examine disabilities for adults age 60 to 69, 70 to 79, and 80 and older.

All age groups reported significant declines in physical activity. But the youngest group had the greatest increase in reported disabilities.

The authors assessed the disability trends of 8,927 individuals based on their responses to questions addressing four areas: basic activities of daily life (including getting out of bed); instrumental activities (including household chores); mobility (including climbing 10 steps without stopping) and functional limitations (including kneeling).

The study also found that body mass index increased significantly from the earlier data set to the most recent, as did the number of participants who met criteria for obesity.

Although all age groups reported more obesity, the most striking increase was among people in their 60s, for whom prevalence of obesity rose from 27.4% in 1988-1994 to 37.6% for 1999-2004.

The authors said the growth in obesity prevalence, and its increasingly early onset, likely contributed to the significant rise in reported disabilities among those in their 60s.

Arun S. Karlamangla, MD, PhD, one of the study's authors, said it's not too late for people in that age group to improve their lifestyles.

"If one can reverse obesity, then one can probably reverse the disability issues," said Dr. Karlamangla, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, Dept. of Medicine. "Doctors have to be more vigilant in respect to obesity and people who are overweight in their 40s, 50s, and 60s."

He suggested physicians teach overweight and obese patients how to incorporate more activity into their daily lives.

"If we can [stop] this increasing level of obesity, we might be able to reduce the trend [of increasing disabilities at younger ages], flatten it or even reverse it," Dr. Karlamangla said.

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