Exponential increases in the prevalence of disability in the oldest old: a Canadian national survey

Gerontology. 2014;60(5):395-401. doi: 10.1159/000358059. Epub 2014 May 7.


Background: As most studies generally treat all 85+ year-olds as a homogeneous group, little is known about the specific disabilities of the oldest old population, those aged 90 and older.

Objective: To estimate age-specific prevalence of disability in activities of daily living for older Canadians, including the oldest old, those aged 90 and older.

Methods: Cross-sectional national survey with a representative sample of noninstitutionalized Canadians aged between 50 and 104 years old (n = 28,406). Disability was self-reported and defined as needing assistance to perform self-care and domestic life activities.

Results: The prevalence of disability increased with age, and the rise appeared exponential when considering the oldest old. At age 90, the highest estimated rates of disability were reported for housekeeping (50%), shopping (45%) and transportation (44%), and 21% reported requiring assistance for washing themselves. Compared to the 85-89 age group, the estimated proportion of people reporting disability in the 95+ age group approximately triples for self-care activities and doubles for domestic life activities.

Conclusion: Even if we knew that disability increases with age, we can now state that it increases at an accelerated rate beyond age 85. Grouping people aged 85+ into one category leads to substantial underestimates of disability in the oldest old. Accurate estimates are necessary for adequate allocation of care and rehabilitation resources for a rapidly expanding age group.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Canada / epidemiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Disabled Persons / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prevalence