Nurse helping woman walk with walker

Fewer American seniors are reporting disabilities, according to a new analysis of American Community Survey data. A steep, decade-long decline has likely been influenced by rising education levels and improved environmental factors, investigators say.

The researchers analyzed 2008-to-2017 data from the survey, which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Over that period, 18% fewer adults aged 65 years and older experienced limitations in activities of daily living, such as bathing or dressing, and 13% fewer adults reported functional limitations like walking and stair climbing.

According to study author Esme Fuller-Thomson, PhD, of the University of Toronto, that translates to 1.27 million fewer seniors with ADL limitations in 2017 compared with 2008. Similarly, in 2017, 1.89 million fewer older adults experienced functional limitations compared with 2008, she reported.

The analysis, published online in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, also showed that the trend was more pronounced in women than in men. Women’s odds of ADL limitations decreased by 20% in the study period versus 13% for men, for example. This may be due to women’s higher likelihood of getting yearly medical check-ups and practicing preventive care, according to the researchers. 

Disability within generations

There were generational differences, too. Baby boomers reported more modest declines in disabilities when compared to an older cohort. Higher rates of obesity in that generation may have hampered improvements, Fuller-Thomson and colleagues said. 

There were signs that the decline in disability was influenced by changing education levels, with more adults having graduated from high school and university, the authors added. In addition, factors related to lung health may have played a part in the findings, they noted. These included decreases in smoking, decreasing levels of air pollutants and the phasing out of leaded gasoline in the 1970s,” Fuller-Thomson said.

The findings dovetail with those of another study that has found numerous changes to the health and financial status of a group of senior Americans over a seven-year period.

According to the Independent Living Then and Now report, self-rated health status has declined among senior living residents between 2012 to 2019/2020. But there was also a notable drop in falls, hospitalizations and the proportion of residents requiring assistance with ADLs, McKnight’s Senior Living has reported

At the same time, support from home healthcare and the use of assistive devices has increased, found the same study, from the American Seniors Housing Association. Only 9% of senior living residents in 2012 received home health support compared with 14% in 2019/2020.

Related articles:

Strong clinical workforce protects against functional decline in nursing homes, review finds

As seniors’ presence in nursing homes drops, young people with disabilities stuck with few alternatives: study

Postural tremor doesn’t predict ADL disability in seniors, study finds

Changes in movement patterns predict frailty, disability in the elderly