Elkind & Shea


Quick Contact














Aging and Disability: What is Happening and What Can Be Done

Half of workers over the age of 45 and two-thirds of workers 55 and older have at least one diagnosed condition. As workers age, it becomes harder for them to complete tasks as they once did, especially in regards to physical exertion as older workers naturally how lower work capacity. Increased strain can result in a marked health risk for the older worker. Most older workers have cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, or mental symptoms which increase the perceived stress of work on a daily basis. The decrease in worker ability has been seen once workers reach the age of 50 or more. The greatest single effect felt by workers comes from combination of impairments (multiple symptoms or medical conditions). In addition, poor work posture due to aging also accounts for increased strain on older workers.

Work performance begins to decline when workers reach 51 to 55 years in age. There is weakening in short term memory and fine motor speed with greater decrease in jobs with less mental demands. There is a slowing of cognitive abilities as well as gross motor abilities.

Aging particularly increases the incidence of work disability. This work disability is linked more to the individual than work load factors. The most impairing work loads are poor work postures and poor physical climate. This is made even worse by lack of any potential for development at work (causing increased worker dissatisfaction).

The physical stress and strain of physical work in older workers affects men differently than women. In general, women have more physical demands than men with men having more peak loads. Poorer work postures was seen in women who often find physical work too heavy as a result of their decreased physical work capacity. Aging women are also affected by a much higher decrease in cardiovascular capacity, having only 38% of the capacity of their male counterparts by age 55. Workers older than 50 years experience significant decreased capacity for musculoskeletal capacity which is not maintained by physically heavy work.

The following recommendations are made to assist in this effort:

  • Work demands should change with age with decreasing work demands with increasing age
  • Work should be designed for unhealthy people
  • Work ability should be promoted
  • Special attention to stress reactions are needed
  • Better knowledge of aging is needed
  • Action programs are needed. Id.

Specific physical demands which are considered too great for older workers include:

  • Static muscular work
  • Use of muscular strength
  • Lifting and carrying
  • Sudden peak loads
  • Repetitive movements
  • Simultaneously bent and twisted work postures. Id.

There are stressful/dangerous work environments which need to be avoided including dirty, wet, risky for accidents, hot, cold, and those subject to temperature changes.

Overall, physical capacity decreases remarkably earlier than mental and social capacities. It has been revealed that workers aged 51 – 55 show remarkable differences in stress reactions. For this reason, difficult work situations should also be avoided with the following factors needing to be addressed:

  • Role conflicts
  • Supervision and tackling of work
  • Fear of failure and mistake
  • Lack of freedom of choice
  • Time pressure
  • Lack of influence on own work
  • Lack of professional development
  • Lack of acknowledgment and appreciation.

Although the final two steps remain to be resolved. The first four steps are fully possible. Two more important recommendations in this process are allowing workers to take exercise breaks during the day at their discretion and conduct regular work ability assessments. In a perfect world, such considerations would be mandatory for employers of aging workers. But, as you realize, our world is far from perfect and few employers are willing to make the effort to retrain employees or modify their work to assist them due to the effects of aging. As for stress, workers are expected to handle increasing amounts of stress regardless of age or the effects that stress has on them. Employers pretty much want the same thing: maximal performance for minimal wage.

In particular, poorly organized work scheduling increased the risk of disability. Musculoskeletal symptoms and immediate physical stress at work predicted musculoskeletal disability. Stress reactions are strongly associated with work disability with workers suffering from stress reactions becoming disabled at least two times more often then workers subjected to fewer stressors. Additional symptoms resulting from stress reactions include sleep disturbance, mental symptoms, and aversion reactions.

The stress reactions to physical stress have been shown to be greater than those caused by mental stress alone. Mixed physical and mental stress work also resulted in increased stress reactions. There are notable exceptions with certain types of work for males such as teaching and dentistry resulted in more marked stress reactions. Long-term exposure in a work office environment resulted in marked stress reactions.

The reactions of workers to the stress caused by their own chronic disease conditions reveals interesting findings. The effects of stress caused by the actual conditions is very similar. The effect of this stress on healthy workers is more profound than ill workers who seem more capable of coping this perceived “outside” factor.

There are differences between aging workers participating in primarily physical as opposed to mental work. Poor work ability was seen most often in occupations with physical work demands as well as mixed physical and mental work demands. Work content itself was found not to relate to the presence of mental disease. Women in physical work suffer from degenerative arthropathy of the upper back and shoulder regions as well as degenerative joint disease of the extremities. Men in mixed physical and mental work suffer from degenerative spondylarthropathy of the lower back in addition to sciatica.

The effects of workplace stress are obvious when one considers the changes in health conditions of workers following retirement. It would be expected that when workers are relieved of the stress directly caused by work conditions that their health conditions would stabilize. Mental disease stabilizes following retirement as expected. Unfortunately when retiring from mental work, this is true for musculoskeletal problems in women with men showing a markedly increased severity in this condition. Work ability continued to decrease following retirement irrespective of type of preceding type of employment.

Even worse, there is a disincentive to assisting older workers in that hiring of younger employees for low skill positions saves the employer money. Although there is a reduction in efficiency at first, the younger employee can work harder and longer at a much lower wage. You see, over time raises are necessary to retain talent in the workplace. Unfortunately, as a worker ages and suffers a reduction in productivity, it is not possible for an employer to come to the worker and request modification of wage in exchange for the reduced performance. Again, in a perfect world such negotiations could take place. In this world, such discussions rarely occur. Rather, it is far easier to dispose of older workers to be replaced with newer employees.

Even worse, there is a disincentive to assisting older workers in that hiring of younger employees for low skill positions saves the employer money. Although there is a reduction in efficiency at first, the younger employee can work harder and longer at a much lower wage. You see, over time raises are necessary to retain talent in the workplace. Unfortunately, as a worker ages and suffers a reduction in productivity, it is not possible for an employer to come to the worker and request modification of wage in exchange for the reduced performance. Again, in a perfect world such negotiations could take place. In this world, such discussions rarely occur. Rather, it is far easier to dispose of older workers to be replaced with newer employees.

Specific physical demands which are considered too great for older workers include:

  • Static muscular work
  • Use of muscular strength
  • Lifting and carrying

A proposed means of assisting workers in dealing with this is allowing workers to either regulate their work output or by allowing older workers to perform lighter jobs.

The forgone conclusion remains that we know what the problems are in dealing with an aging workforce, yet we continue to do little about it. The aging population in this nation is not going away and substantial measures need to be implemented immediately or else the rate of work disability will continue to escalate.

Source Material:
Eskelinen, C-H, et al. Symptoms of mental and physical stress in different categories of municipal work. Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 82 – 6.

Eskelinen, L, et al. Work-related stress symptoms of aging employees in municipal occupations. Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 87 – 93.

Ilmarinen, J, et al. Summary and recommendations of a project involving cross-sectional and follow-up studies on the aging worker in Finnish municipal occupations (1981 – 1985). Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 135 – 41.

Nygârd, C-H, et al. Musculoskeletal capacity and its changes among aging municipal employees in different work categories. Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 110 – 117.

Suurnäkki, T, et al. Stress and strain of elderly employees in municipal occupations. Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 30 – 9.

Suvanto, S, et al. Performance efficiency and its changes among aging municipal employees. Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 118 – 121.

Tuomi, K, et al. Effect of retirement on health and work ability among municipal employees. Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 75 – 81.

Tuomi, K, et al. Mortality, disability and changes in occupation among aging municipal employees. Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 58 – 66.

Tuomi, K, et al. Prevalence and incidence rates of disease and work ability in different work categories of municipal occupations. Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 67 – 74.

Tuomi, K, et al. Work load and individual factors affecting work disability among aging municipal employees. Scand J Occup Health. 1991; 17(suppl 1): 94 – 8.

Posted in General Disability Issues | Tagged , , |

 

Privacy Policy & Web Site Disclaimer:
We collect only the personal information you provide to us and we do not distribute it to any third parties. Any legal information offered by Elkind & Shea, The Disability Benefits Law Firm, regarding social security disability benefits, long term disability benefits, short term disability benefits, ERISA, long term care denial and life insurance denial or other legal information offered herein is not formal legal advice nor the formation of an attorney client relationship. All communications with counsel are confidential in accordance with the applicable Rules of Professional Responsibility which require that even consultations without retention are held confidential.
This privately-owned web site is not in any way affiliated or endorsed by the United States government or the Social Security Administration.