Older blacks face higher disability risk, UF study shows

June 11, 2001

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The golden years are more likely to be tarnished for black Americans, who face a higher risk of disabilities than their Latino and white counterparts, a University of Florida study shows.

In the first national survey of differences among older ethnic groups, a team led by UF sociologist Charles Peek found that, during a two-year period, nearly 20 percent of blacks age 70 and older lost the ability to perform personal tasks such as eating, dressing and bathing. By comparison, 17 percent of Latinos and 15 percent of whites lost that ability, the study shows.

The disparity may be the result of older African Americans growing up in a time of greater racial discrimination, said Peek, a core faculty member in UF’s Institute on Aging.

“We need to remember that because of their age, African Americans in the study lived much of their lives when segregation was very prevalent,” he said. “Certainly they may not have had equal access to jobs and health insurance, and those are the kinds of things that can accumulate into health problems later in life.”

The researchers examined two types of disabilities: difficulties performing personal care tasks such as eating, bathing and dressing, and difficulties doing household maintenance tasks such as preparing meals and shopping for groceries.

One factor that may relate to the disparity is education, Peek said. The study found that every year of education from kindergarten to college reduced a person’s likelihood of developing a disability, regardless of race.

“People with higher education likely have had access to more resources: better jobs, better health insurance and greater wealth,” he said. “In addition, education may also enable people to live healthier lives by recognizing the value of healthy behaviors and preventive health measures.”

Whites in the study had 11.5 mean years of education, compared with 8.3 for blacks and 6.1 for Latinos, he said.

Laurence G. Branch, professor at Duke School of Medicine and editor of The Gerontologist, called Peek’s study “very important.”

“Numerous previous studies have demonstrated that older African Americans in their 60s and 70s have shorter life expectancies and poorer health status than European Americans, but this finding that every year of education reduced a person’s likelihood of developing a disability, regardless of race or ethnicity, is very provocative.”

The rate of disability for all older Americans could be reduced with preventative measures, Peek said.

“Because older members of minority groups, and especially African Americans, have a high risk of developing disability, we should redouble our efforts to make sure they, and all older adults who live under impoverished conditions, have access to things like meal programs, visiting nurses and other household accommodations,” he said.

Peek and sociology graduate student Tyson Brown studied a sample of 4,500 people who participated in a nationally representative survey called “Assets in Health Dynamics of the Oldest Old” between 1995 and 1998.

The UF researchers also found that older blacks are more likely than whites to have difficulty performing household tasks that help them live independently, such as shopping, preparing meals and managing money. Twenty-three percent of blacks have lost their ability to perform those tasks — the same percentage as Latinos — compared with 19 percent of whites.

Peek believes a better understanding of the relationship between socioeconomic status and health throughout one’s entire life will help to explain some of the health differences across ethnic groups.

The answers to those questions are important in helping older people remain independent and maintain the quality of their lives, Peek said.

“Disabilities are one of the highest risk factors for going into a nursing home,” he said. “If we can keep people disability free, that’s certainly going to have an impact on whether they continue to live in the community or enter a nursing home.”