NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Are Young Adults Becoming More Disabled?

July 25, 2001

As a group, the health of the elderly population is improving. However, the health of young is deteriorating, argue some economists.

A disability is a condition that limits one or more functions of daily life, and there are degrees of disability. Disability rates among the elderly have fallen in recent years, but researchers are concerned that increasing disability among the young may translate into higher disability rates for tomorrow's elderly.

Based on data from the National Health Interview Survey, researchers found that from 1984 to 1996:

  • The rate of disability among those in their 40s rose by one full percentage point, or almost 40 percent.
  • Asthma rates have grown significantly for all groups younger than age 65, and by almost 3 percentage points among those in their 20s and 30s.
  • Diabetes rates have increased by 70 percent for those in their 30s; 40 percent for those in their 40s; 30 percent for those in their 50s; 17 percent for those in their 60s; and 10 percent for those older than 70.

The percentage increases in diabetes are heavily skewed toward the young in large part because of the growth in obesity among the younger age groups. But the growth in asthma alone appears more than enough to explain the change in disability, say researchers.

Self-reported health status also suggests that the young have been growing sicker while the old have been growing healthier. From 1990 to 1996, the proportion of the population reporting excellent or very good health fell significantly for people younger than 50, was constant for people 50 to 60 years old, and rose for those older than 60.

Source: Darius Lakdawalla, Dana Goldman and Jay Bhattacharya, "Are the Young Becoming More Disabled?" NBER Working Paper No. W8247, April 2001, National Bureau of Economic Research.

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