Background: A large proportion of the disease and disability which affects older persons occurs in the years just prior to death. Little prospective evidence is available which quantifies the burden of morbidity and disability during these years.
Methods: In three community-based cohorts of persons age 65 and older, chronic conditions and disability were evaluated for the three years prior to death in 531 persons who had three annual assessments and then died within one year of the third assessment. Number of chronic conditions, prevalence of disability in activities of daily living (ADLs), and prevalence of disability on a modified Rosow-Breslau scale were determined for these decedents and compared to 8821 members of the cohorts known to have survived.
Results: Prevalence rates of disease and disability increased during the follow-up for both decedents and survivors, with decedents generally having higher rates than survivors. Disability rates prior to death, but not the number of diseases, increased with increasing age at death. The odds ratio for disability in ADLs at any of the three assessments for decedents versus survivors ranged from 3.0 to 4.2 in the three communities. In each community the odds ratio for ADL disability was higher in women decedents versus survivors than in men decedents versus survivors.
Conclusions: These results have important implications for disability levels in future older populations in which death is projected to occur at increasingly higher ages.