Struggling with daily tasks in middle age may signal death within decade, study finds

SAN FRANCISCO — Those who are unable to completely care for themselves during their older years of middle age are more likely to die within the following decade, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) examined 22 years of data from the National Institute of Aging’s Health and Retirement Study, which allowed them to monitor the long-term health outcomes of nearly 6,900 middle-aged adults.

Participants, who were between the ages of 50 and 64, did not report functional impairment at the start of the study, but were asked to report any loss in ability every other year.

Middle-age or elderly man
A new study finds people who struggle with everyday tasks, like getting dressed, during middle age, are more likely to die within 10 years.

For the purposes of the study, functional impairment was defined as having difficulty or needing assistance with performing any of five functions (bathing, dressing, transferring, using the restroom, and eating), or any of five everyday tasks (managing money, keeping track of medications, grocery shopping, meal preparation, and making phone calls).

To determine whether mid-aged individuals had a better chance at fully recovering from functional impairment than the elderly, the researchers looked at a number of subsequent outcomes, including whether further functional decline or death occurred.

Among those examined, only 28 percent of those who had developed a form of functional impairment fully recovered without relapse, the researchers found. Four percent died within ten years.

Equally surprising was the finding that 22 percent of this pre-retirement cohort had developed a functional impairment over the course of the study, which exceeded previous estimates.

The researchers emphasize that even this rate of incidence may be low, however, due to some of the study’s limitations.

These include its use of self-reporting over more objective measures, its lack of documentation for short-term impairments suffered between reporting periods, and the inability of some participants to respond due to deteriorated health.

“Our findings challenge the traditional thinking that functional impairment in middle age is just a temporary phenomenon,” concludes Dr. Rebecca Brown, the study’s lead author, in a university news release. “We show that people who experienced even a brief episode of functional impairment in middle age were at increased risk for further functional decline over time.”

The full study was published last week in the journal Annals of Medicine.