Characterization of older adults who attribute functional decrements to 'old age'

Jeff D. Williamson, Linda P. Fried

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


OBJECTIVE: Understanding the contributors to physical disability in older adults is an important component of the national health objective of expanding disability-free life by the year 2000. The purpose of this study was to determine the frequency with which older adults attribute their difficulty performing a number of common daily tasks to 'old age' and to identify specific conditions and diseases associated with this attribution. Finally we sought to determine the characteristics that might differentiate persons able to attribute their disability to specific conditions from those who cite old age as the etiology of their disability. DESIGN: A cross- sectional, observational, study. SETTING: The Johns Hopkins Functional Status Laboratory. PARTICIPANTS: Two hundred thirty community-dwelling volunteers 60 years of age and older who could stand unassisted for ≤1 minute and who were without cognitive impairment. MEASUREMENTS: A 1-day evaluation included physical performance evaluations, both performance-based and self-reported function for 27 tasks, and self-report of physician-diagnosed diseases. Those with difficulty in a task and those who denied difficulty but had changed the method of task performance (modification) because of an underlying health or physical condition were identified and asked to name the cause of their difficulty or task modification; options were specific diseases/medical conditions or 'old age.' The prevalence of 'old age' citation as a cause of functional limitation, as well as its associated characteristics and medical conditions, was determined. MAIN RESULTS: Twenty percent of the 230 participants cited 'old age' as the cause of their disability in two or more tasks. Tasks for which difficulty was most frequently attributed to 'old age' were dressing oneself (31%), walking around the home (25%), walking 1/2 mile (5-6 blocks) (25%), cutting toenails (16%), getting in or out of a bed or chair or out a car (14% each), and ascending/descending stairs (13%). Significantly higher levels of arthritis, heart disease, and hearing loss were reported in persons attributing their disability to 'old age' than in those not reporting 'old age' as the cause of their disability. We found no differences in age, gender, race, education, or cognitive status for the two groups. However, individuals citing 'old age' as the cause of functional decrements walked more slowly than those who cited a specific disease. CONCLUSIONS: These data suggest that a significant proportion of functional decline attributed to 'aging' in older adults may be associated with specific conditions. Identifying and reducing the impact of these conditions may prove to be a useful approach to preventing or minimizing functional loss.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1429-1434
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of the American Geriatrics Society
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 1996

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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