Background: Many researchers have suggested that the rate of disabling conditions among older Americans has decreased in the past 10 years. However, there have been few attempts to aggregate and assess the quality of research studies on this topic.
Objectives: To assess the quality, quantity, and consistency of research studies on the prevalence and scope of disability among older Americans during late 1980s to 1990s.
Search strategy: The authors searched electronic sources including MEDLINE and AGELINE between January 1990 and May 2002 for articles on old age disability or functioning trends. The authors also searched the reference lists of published articles.
Selection criteria: The authors considered studies pertaining to prevalence estimates for the older US population. All studies included at least one data point in the mid-1990s. Studies focusing on the early 1980s or earlier were excluded from review.
Data collection and analysis: The authors selected 16 articles based on 8 unique repeat cross-sectional and cohort surveys for analysis. Each study was assessed for methodological quality according to 10 criteria adapted from the National Research Council.
Main results: The authors found prevalence of disability for older adults declined during the 1990s. However the declines were not consistent across all measures of disability. Conflicting evidence exists about the most severe types of disability associated with long-term care needs.
Conclusions: The rates of disabling conditions among older Americans have shown improvements over the past 10 years. Future research should examine the causes of these improvements to inform health and medical care policy.