Explaining the role of sex on disability: A population-based study

Linda A. Wray, Caroline S. Blaum

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82 Scopus citations


Purpose: There is no clear consensus about how sex influences prevalent disability and through what mechanisms. We investigated whether sex had a direct independent effect on disability or whether sex had an interactive effect on the relationship between chronic diseases/conditions and disability, and whether these effects differed in middle-aged versus older adults. Design and Methods: We used baseline data from two nationally representative health interview surveys, the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the Study of Asset and Health Dynamics Among the Oldest Old (AHEAD), and disability and covariate measures that were nearly identical in both surveys. Logistic regression models tested the contributions of diseases, impairments, and demographic and social characteristics on difficulties with prevalent activities of daily living (ADLs), mobility, and strength. Results: Models demonstrated no direct sex effect for ADL disability in either age group after adjusting for key covariates. However, sex did exert an indirect effect on ADL disability in older adults via musculoskeletal conditions and depressive symptoms. In contrast, female sex remained strongly associated with mobility and strength disability in both age groups, net of covariates. Major interactions were also significant, including a female sex/body mass index (BMI) interaction for mobility difficulty and several sex-disease interactions for strength disability in the middle-aged group. Implications: The effect of sex on ADL difficulty is largely explained by social and health-related covariates in middle-aged and older adults. In contrast, the independent association of female sex with decreased strength and mobility in both groups cannot be explained by our models’ social or health-related variables. In addition, the positive association of BMI with mobility difficulty is significantly worse for women than for men.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)499-510
Number of pages12
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2001

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Medicine


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