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Isolation May Worsen Impact of Disability

A danger for working-age people with disabilities is that they become socially isolated, which can cause a further deterioration in their health and ability to function.

A good example of this vicious cycle is people with severe arthritis. If joint pain makes walking more difficult, it can limit one’s ability to do things with friends or be out in public, which means more social isolation and less exercise to ease the pain’s disabling effects.

A new Mathematica study connects this phenomenon to the sharp rise in the share of Social Security disability awards going to people with arthritis, back pain, and other musculoskeletal conditions.

Between 1997 and 2017, there was a slight increase, to 13.4 percent, in the share of Americans with musculoskeletal conditions who reported being socially isolated, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.

Discomfort in social settings is also present in the general population – but at about half the rate, or 6 percent of adults.

Another contributor to social isolation is cognitive impairment, which includes confusion and poor memory. Cognitive impairments are also on the rise among people with arthritis and related conditions. The increase can’t solely be attributed to the aging of the U.S. population either, because the analysis controlled for age in order to eliminate its effects.

To understand the role of social isolation in disability, the researchers point to the vicious cycle between the two.

“Whether social isolation is exacerbating disability or disability is exacerbating social isolation,” they said, “the contributing limitations are risk factors” that will worsen a disability that already exists.

To read this study, authored by Purvi Sevak, Anna Hill, and Christal Stone Valenzano, see “Could a Rise in Social and Cognitive Limitations Increase Enrollment in Disability Programs?”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.  

One Response to Isolation May Worsen Impact of Disability

  1. Gayle Dedelow says:

    Very informative! Thank you.

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