NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


June 16, 2006

Disability among older Americans is declining dramatically -- and at an accelerating pace, according to the National Long Term Care Survey (NLTCS). Moreover, the percentage of people age 65 and older with disabilities fell 1.6 percent per year from 1989-1994 and 2.6 percent annually from 1994-1999.

The improvements also are noteworthy for a newly observed decline in disability among black Americans and a decrease of at least 200,000 in the number of people estimated to live in nursing homes.

Several factors are thought to have influenced the decline in disability over the last decade or so. Among them:

  • Improvements in maternal nutrition and public health early in the last century.
  • Better control of the infectious diseases associated with childhood.
  • Significant increases in the education and finances of succeeding generations reaching old age.

Other factors include:

  • Health-related behavioral changes such as smoking cessation.
  • Improved control and treatment of such diseases as hypertension and heart disease.
  • Development and use of new surgical interventions and the impact of newly developed drugs.

Researchers also are studying the broader implications of the decline in disability. For example, can continued reductions in disability help control costs for Medicare, Medicaid, or other health care expenditures? Kenneth G. Manton and XiLiang Gu examine one aspect of this question in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report, looking at the reduction in nursing home residence as one possible area of cost savings. If a nursing home stay costs about $47,200 per year, they note, the reduction in nursing home stays may have avoided several billion dollars in costs from 1994-1999.

Source: "Dramatic Decline in Disability Continues for Older Americans," National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health and U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, May 7, 2001; based upon Kenneth G. Manton and XiLiang Gu, "Changes in the prevalence of chronic disability in the United States black and non-black population above age 65 from 1982 to 1999," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 8, 2001.


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