According to a study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, seniors today experience many fewer disabilities than they did a decade ago. The study finds that while 12.1% of Americans aged 65 and older experienced limitations in activities of daily living (such as dressing or bathing) in 2008, just 9.6% did in 2017. Similarly, while in 2008 27.3% of seniors experienced functional limitations (such as difficulty walking or climbing stairs), just 23.5% did so in 2017. If seniors in 2017 had experienced the same level of disability as those in 2008, an additional 1.27 million would have required assistance with their activities of daily living, at greater burden to their caregivers and programs that provide assistance.
In addition, the authors report that another study “found improvements in the disability-free life expectancy in the US for both community and institutionalized populations between the years of 1970 and 2010, with an expansion in the number of years that an American could expect to live free of disability after the age of 65 of 2.7 years for men and 2.4 years for women.”
While the study authors do not have a certain explanation for the improvement in the functioning of today’s seniors or its apparent leveling off, they have some ideas. One is the higher education level of today’s older Americans as compared to their predecessors, which is associated both with their taking better care of themselves and with types of work they did when younger that are less debilitating over time. The study’s lead author, Esme Fuller-Thomson, also speculates that decreases in smoking and air pollution, and the phase out of leaded gasoline may have had beneficial effects, especially on the cardiovascular functioning of today’s seniors.
Baby Boomers and Obesity
This is potentially good news for the United States and other nations facing the aging of the large baby boomer population, the oldest members of which will reach age 85 in ten years, the age at which people are more likely to begin to need assistance. Unfortunately, the study authors are not so sanguine that these trends will continue. They report that other data suggest “an end to the decline in ADL limitations and FLs.”
One reason that baby boomers do not appear to be healthier than today’s seniors has to do with greater levels of obesity. This is not a surprise. About two decades ago, I had the opportunity to interview Robert N. Butler, the founding director of the National Institute of Aging. I asked him how he expected baby boomers to do as we aged, fully expecting him to extol our virtues as joggers and healthy eaters. Instead, he was already pessimistic about the future health as baby boomers, citing our increased levels of obesity as the reason. A 2005 study found that while 14 to 18% of the “silent” generation were obese when they were 35 to 44 years old, 28 to 32% of baby boomers were obese at the same ages.
We can’t reverse decades of a more sedentary lifestyle, but we can get ready for the greater need for caregivers likely to begin facing our nation in about ten years.