WebMD Medical News
Louise Chang, MD
April 24, 2007 -- Experts warned in a report Tuesday that the U.S. is
largely unprepared for a coming explosion in its disabled population.
As many as 50 million Americans currently live with physical or mental
impairments that prevent them from taking on regular work or life activities.
But that number is expected to skyrocket as an aging population and rising
obesity rates take their toll on Americans, concludes a report issued by a
panel at the Institute of Medicine (IOM).
"It becomes quite clear that disability will essentially affect the
lives of most Americans," says Alan M. Jette, the panel's chairman.
The panel called on the federal government to eliminate barriers that can
delay medical coverage for disabled people under Medicare. But it also pointed
to a broad range of research and policy concerns.
Experts say the Justice Department should step up enforcement of the
Americans with Disabilities Act at hospitals and other health care facilities.
The law, which was signed in 1990, guarantees wheelchair and other disabled
access to public buildings.
"Even just getting into and around health facilities ... is really very
difficult nowadays," says Lisa I. Lezzoni, a professor of medicine at the
Harvard Medical School Institute for Health Policy and a member of the IOM
The number of elderly Americans is projected to double by 2030, a factor
nearly guaranteed to push up the disabled population, the report says. Still,
obesity lingers as another factor that experts says has them worried.
"The available data was very disturbing to the committee," says
Jette, director of the Health and Disability Research Institute at Boston
About one-sixth of U.S. children and two-thirds of U.S. adults are
considered overweight or obese, according to the CDC. That puts them at higher
risk for myriad causes of disability, including stroke, cancer, and
"It clearly comes through as a major risk factor," Jette says.
The report scolds U.S. policy makers for largely ignoring the coming
consequences of disability. Jette said lawmakers and other policy makers
usually fail to act unless problems are visible and personal to members of the
He said the public could become galvanized by the large number of U.S.
military personnel returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with
SOURCES: Institute of Medicine: "The Future of Disability in
America," April 24, 2007. Alan M. Jette, director, Health and Disability
Research Institute at Boston University; chairman, IOM panel. Lisa I.
Lezzoni, professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School Institute for Health
Policy; member, IOM panel. National Center for Health Statistics.
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