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Chronic Disability Declines Among Older Americans

December 2006 - Recent analysis of data from the National Long-Term Care Survey (NLTCS) indicates that chronic disability among older Americans has decreased significantly, and that the rate of decline has accelerated during the past twenty years. The findings suggest continued health improvement in the aging population.

Conducted by Kenneth G. Manton and colleagues at Duke University, the study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and supported by the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. All are part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The study found that the prevalence of chronic disability among people aged 65 and over fell from 26.5 per cent in 1982 to 19 per cent in 2004/2005. The decline averaged 1.52 per cent annually over the 22-year period, but the rate increased from 0.6 per cent in 1984 to 2.2 per cent in 2004/2005.

Richard J. Hodes, NIA director, said:

"This continuing decline in disability among older people is one of the most encouraging and important trends in the aging of the American population."

Other key findings include:

  • The greatest improvement in chronic disability rates in people aged over 65 was seen in those most severely impaired. The researchers note the possible relevance of environmental modifications, assistive technologies and biomedical advances.
  • The proportion of people without disabilities showed the greatest rate of increase (32.6 per cent) in those aged 85 and over.
  • The percentage of those aged 65 and over enrolling in Medicare who lived in long-term care institutions such as nursing homes dropped from 7.5 per cent to 4 per cent. The researchers note the possible relevance of greater assisted-living options, changes in Medicare reimbursement policies and improved rehabilitation services.

Richard Suzman, director of NIA's Behavioral and Social Research Program, added:

"The challenge now is to see how this trend can be maintained and accelerated especially in the face of increasing obesity. Doing so over the next several decades will significantly lessen the societal impact of the aging of the baby-boom generation."


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