NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Disability And Chronic Illness Rates Decline Among The Elderly

May 8, 2001

Fewer older Americans are being hit with such chronic disabilities as stroke and dementia, according to a new study sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. If that trend continues, it could halt the growth in Medicare spending.

While the number of older people who become severely disabled has been gradually declining for more than a decade, the decrease became much sharper at the end of the 1990s -- particularly among blacks.

  • Until 1994, the number of older Americans who were struck by a chronic disability had been declining by 1.6 percent each year -- a rate which jumped to 2.6 percent a year from 1994 through 1999.
  • Duke University researchers who compiled the study said that even if the 1.6 percent rate of decrease continued, the demand for Medicare services would be fairly static despite the surging number of aging baby boomers.
  • Disability rates for blacks had been increasing until 1989, but that changed to a decline of 4.7 percent from that point to 1994 -- and declined again at a rate exceeding 5 percent from 1994 to 1999.
  • Although the overall number of people over age 65 increased by more than 35 million from 1982 to 1999, the number of those who were disabled dropped from 7.1 million to 7.0 million.

Experts called the numbers astounding. They attributed the decline to more widespread knowledge of the benefits of diet and exercise, fewer people smoking, new drugs for heart problems and other illnesses, and advances in eye surgery.

Advances in prescription drugs and medical technology were also credited.

Source: Milt Freudenheim, "Decreases in Chronic Illnesses Bodes Well for Medicare Costs," New York Times, May 8, 2001.


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