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J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2010 Dec;65(12):1325-31. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glq139. Epub 2010 Jul 30.

Chronic medical conditions and the sex-based disparity in disability: the Cardiovascular Health Study.

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Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC 27710, USA.



Older women experience disability more commonly than their male peers. This disparity may be due, in part, to sex-based differences in the prevalence or the disabling effects of common medical conditions. The objectives of this analysis were to (a) quantify the extent to which excess disability in women is explained by higher prevalence of selected medical conditions and (b) evaluate whether the same conditions have differing effects on disability in men and women.


We analyzed cross-sectional data from 5,888 community-dwelling older men and women. Disability was defined as difficulty with greater than or equal to one activity of daily living. Thirteen medical conditions were assessed by self-report, testing, or record review.


Controlling for age, race, education, and marital status, women were more likely to experience disability (odds ratio = 1.70, 95% confidence interval = 1.36-2.11). Higher prevalence of arthritis and obesity in women explained 30.2% and 12.9%, respectively, of the sex-based difference in disability rates, whereas male prevalent diseases like vascular conditions and emphysema narrowed the disability gap. Women with arthritis, hearing problems, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, and claudication were more likely to exhibit disability compared with men with the same conditions (p < .001).


Efforts to lessen sex-based inequality in disability should focus on reducing the prevalence of arthritis and obesity. Future generations may see greater functional disparity if rates of vascular disease and emphysema rise among women. Several conditions were more often associated with disability in women, suggesting additional sex-based differences in the disablement process.

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