Southern States’ Elderly Have Greater Instances of Disability, Study Finds

Where one lives in the United States affects how long and how healthfully one lives, a new report finds.

Between 2008 and 2012 there were 40.7 million people aged 65 and over in the United States, representing 13.2% of the total population, data in the new U.S. Census Bureau report shows. The report was commissioned and funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Residents in the South, regardless of race or sex, had lower life expectancy at age 65 than residents in other regions, the report finds.


Almost 16 million Americans 65 and older nationwide report having at least one disability, with about 6.1 million of those Americans residing in the South, data show. The other three regions each contained about one-fifth of the total elderly disabled population — 3.5 million in the Midwest; 3.3 million in the West; and 2.9 million in the Northeast. 

“If the prevalence rates hold, then one would expect the size of the older disabled population living in households will increase, potentially expanding demand for various types of changes in the physical household environment,” report spokesperson Dr. John Phillips tells HHCN. Phillips serves as the chief of the population and social processes branch in the Division of Behavioral and Social Research in the National Institute on Aging at the NIH.

“The types of disabilities people have as well as the availability of caregiving will likely affect demand for types of housing, [such as] single story, and physical accommodation, [such as] ramps,” he says.


But whether disability prevalence rates will hold is a matter of ongoing research.

“The long decline of old age disability during the 1980s and 1990s held the absolute size of disabled elderly population steady, but that decline appears to now be stalling just as growth of the elderly population is increasing,” he says.

Changes in population age structure are contributing to a growing number of older people with disability, the U.S. Census Bureau says in the report, noting that the number of those 85 and older in the United States has increased from 8.8% in 1980 to 13.6% in 2010.

“Given higher prevalence rates among the oldest old, this changing composition of the older population has increased the number with a disability,” the bureau says.

Those 85 and older had the highest prevalence of disability. While this group represented 13.6% of the total older population, they accounted for 25.4% of those with a disability.

The report covers six types of disability, including difficulty in hearing, vision, cognition, walking, self-care, and independent living, and is based on data from the American Community Survey (ACS). People who reported any one of the six disability types are considered to have a disability.

The most common type of disability was difficulty in walking or climbing stairs, which was reported by two-thirds of those with a disability.

Difficultly with independent living, such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping, was a distant second at 47.8%, followed by serious difficulty hearing at 40.4%, data show.

“The data from the Census report shows that difficulties getting around without assistance, or ambulatory disabilities, represent the largest fraction of reported limitations in the 65+ population,” Phillips says. “Assuming that the prevalence remains roughly the same going forward, there would be a growing need for environments and technologies that assist elders with mobility issues, particularly those living alone and in the community.”

The report’s statistics on disabilities do not control for current accommodations that senior may have, such aswalkers or other assistive devices, for the reported conditions that might mitigate these disabilities.

View “Older Americans With a Disability: 2008 – 2012.“

Written by Cassandra Dowell

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