Are Baby Boomers Doomed to Disability?

generic old senior citizen elderly age hands cane
Baby boomers are entering their 60s just in time for a new trend: disability.

One in five 60-somethings need help with basic daily activities -- up from 13 percent just a decade ago. Various disabilities are up 40 percent to 70 percent in 60- to 69-year-olds, UCLA researcher Teresa E. Seeman, PhD, and colleagues find.

Seeman's team analyzed federal disability data collected from people over age 60 in 1988-1994 and in 1999-2004. The most recent data therefore captures only a few of those born during the baby boom of 1946-1964.

But the trends bode ill for boomers.

"Our results have significant and sobering implications," Seeman and colleagues say. "To the extent that persons currently aged 60 to 69 years are harbingers of likely disability trends for the massive baby-boomer generation, the health care and assistance needs of disabled older Americans could, in the not so distant future, impose heavy burdens on families and society."

Compared with those surveyed in 1988-1994, 60-somethings surveyed in 1999-2004 were:

  • 70 percent more likely to have difficulty walking from room to room, getting in and out of bed, and/or eating and dressing.

  • 70 percent more likely to have difficulty doing chores, preparing meals, and/or managing money

  • 50 percent more likely to have difficulty walking a quarter mile and/or walking up 10 steps without rest

  • 40 percent more likely to have difficulty stooping, crouching, or kneeling; lifting or carrying 10 pounds; and/or standing from an armless chair.
  • Not surprisingly, given the ongoing obesity epidemic, people who entered their 60s from 1999 to 2004 were much more likely to be obese, to have a too-large waist size, and to get less exercise than those who turned 60 from 1988-1994.

    Disability was significantly more likely among obese or overweight 60-somethings and among African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans. But neither health status, health behavior, race or ethnicity -- taken separately or together -- fully explained the trend toward more disability.

    Seeman and colleagues report their findings in the American Journal of
    Public Health
    , published online ahead of print on Nov. 12.
    By Daniel DeNoon
    Reviewed by Louise Chang
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