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  • Women Losing Ground in Disability-Free Life Expectancy

    While women live longer than men on average, more women than men experience activity limitations after age 65, says a recent study—reversing a 22-year trend in which disability prevalence was declining in women. Men, however, are now living and staying active for longer than before.

    The retrospective study, published in American Journal of Public Health and Practice (abstract only available for free) examined 30 years of interview data from the 1982 and 2004 National Long Term Care Survey, as well as the 2011 National Health and Aging Trends Study, to estimate mortality and disability rates. The 43,888 respondents represented “all settings, including institutions.” The authors categorized individuals as having "moderate disability," which they defined as a problem performing 1 or 2 personal care activities independently; or "severe disability"—inability to perform 3 or more personal care activities.

    What they found was that after 2 decades of decline from nearly 26% to just over 20%, the percentage of older women with any activity limitations began heading in the opposite direction starting in 2004, rising from 20.2% to 24.2% by 2011.

    As with women, disability rates among men also decreased over the course of the 22 years from 1982 to 2004, dropping from approximately 23.5% to about 16.5%. But unlike women, that's more or less where the rates stayed between 2004 and 2011, rising only slightly, to 16.6% by 2011.

    The numbers show a stark disparity between the sexes, and virtually erase earlier differences, authors note, writing that "the advantage over men in disability-free life expectancy that women experienced at age 65 in 1982 was no longer present in 2011."

    And the changes become even more dramatic later in life. Authors note that “At older ages, the improvement for men is even more marked: 43% of remaining years at age 85 years were expected to be active in 1982 compared with 60% in 2011. For women, the proportion of remaining years at age 85 years expected to be active was stable at about 35%.”

    Researchers didn't find any significant increase in severe disability rates among women, and attribute this “growing gap” to increases in less-severe disability, such as limitations in performing household chores or shopping for groceries. They advise directing public health interventions at older women to postpone disability as long as possible, in part “to offset impending long-term care pressures” associated with aging Baby Boomers.

    Maintaining physical activity and mobility throughout life is the focus of APTA's #AgeWell campaign, launched during National Physical Therapy Month in 2015. The association created several tools and resources to help members spread the word, including information for consumers at MoveForward.com on healthy aging by decade, and "9 Physical Therapist Tips to Help You #AgeWell." APTA also commissioned a survey on public perceptions of aging and activity, and shared the results in an infographic.

    Research-related stories featured in PT in Motion News are intended to highlight a topic of interest only and do not constitute an endorsement by APTA. For synthesized research and evidence-based practice information, visit the association's PTNow website.

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