LOS ANGELES — Don’t expect old age to be all golf and cruises: As Americans live longer and longer, more of them should expect to suffer some sort of independence-threatening disability in the final phase of life, two new studies published online Monday suggest.
“The public is bombarded with messages that frailty and disability are not inevitable, and the most popular medical personalities assail the public with health messages that healthy living will lead to a long life free of disability to the end of life,” wrote University of California, San Francisco researcher Dr. Alexander K. Smith and colleagues, in JAMA Internal Medicine.
But “it is likely that most well-functioning older adults and their families will need to be prepared for a period of disability as they continue to age and approach the last years of life,” they noted.
Hoping to quantify exactly how likely people are to suffer disability at the end of life — a phenomenon about which there is “surprisingly little national data,” the team wrote — the group analyzed interview data collected during the ongoing Health and Retirement Study, a project funded by the National Institute on Aging that tracks a nationally representative cohort of Americans aged 50 and older. Participants in the study are interviewed every two years about their health and economic well-being. Smith and his co-authors focused on 8,232 participants in the program who died over the course of the study, examining answers they provided during the last two years of life.
The older the subject was a death, the more likely he or she was to wind up disabled in activities of daily living in the last two years of life — needing help with at least one of six activities: dressing, bathing, eating, getting in and out of bed, walking across a room or using the toilet.