Objective: To characterize hospital diagnoses, procedures and charges, and nursing home admissions in the year when older persons become severely disabled, comparing those in whom severe disability develops rapidly with those in whom disability develops gradually.
Design: A prospective, population-based cohort study with at least 6 annual interviews beginning in 1982.
Setting: A total of 3 communities: East Boston, Mass, New Haven, Conn, and Iowa and Washington counties in Iowa.
Subjects: A total of 6070 persons at least 70 years old with at least 1 interview after the fourth annual follow-up and without evidence of previous severe disability, defined as disability in 3 or more activities of daily living (ADLs).
Main outcome measures: Characteristics associated with development of severe disability after the fourth annual follow-up, in which the disability is classified as catastrophic disability if the individual did not report any ADL disability in the 2 interviews prior to severe disability onset or as progressive disability if the individual had previous disability in 1 or 2 ADLs.
Results: In the year during which severe disability developed, hospitalizations were documented for 72.1% of those developing catastrophic disability and for 48.6% of those developing progressive disability. In the corresponding year, only 14.7% of those who were stable with no disability and 22.3% of those with some disability were hospitalized. The 6 most frequent principal discharge diagnoses included stroke, hip fracture, congestive heart failure, and pneumonia in both severe disability subsets; coronary heart disease and cancer in catastrophic disability; and diabetes and dehydration in progressive disability. These diagnoses occurred in 49% of those with catastrophic disability and 25% of those with progressive disability. In both severe disability subsets, the oldest patients received less intensive hospital care as indicated by charges for surgery, diagnostics, and rehabilitation and by the percentage who received major diagnostic procedures; they were also more often admitted to nursing homes.
Conclusions: In the year when they become severely disabled, a large proportion of older persons are hospitalized for a small group of diseases. Hospital-based interventions aimed at reducing the severity and functional consequences of these diseases could have a large impact on reduction of severe disability.