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Leading Causes of Disability


30% of all Americans will become disabled between the ages of 35 – 65 with 375,000 becoming disabled annually. Many illness and injuries are responsible for causing disability.

Surprisingly, the number one cause of disability is mental illness (depression, anxiety, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, etc.)  The second leading cause of disability is musculoskeletal problems (back, neck, upper/lower extremity conditions). The third leading cause is arthritis (rheumatoid, osteo, and other connective tissue disorders). Following these, other leading causes of disability include cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory disease (COPD, asthma, etc.), nervous system disorders (MS, Parkinson’s, etc.), digestive disorders (Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, etc.) and diabetes (rising quickly due to obesity epidemic although obesity in and of itself is rarely disabling).

Much lower on the list are accidents and strokes, although the disability caused by these events can be quite severe in many cases. Fortunately, persons focusing more on their health and taking care of themselves has reduced the number of strokes and heart attacks in general.  Also, awareness of the onset of these medical conditions has resulted in persons seeking immediate medical assistance, thus reducing their risk of disability due to delay in treatment.

With the reduction in physical labor being undertaken in this country, the number of work-related accident claims has been decreasing as well as claims resulting from “worn out” workers who engaged in long careers requiring physical exertion.

The leading conditions for making short term disability are cancer and pregnancy. Obviously, injuries and accidents are cause for short term disability claims as well, especially when restorative surgery is required.  Although, advances in motor vehicle safety systems has been instrumental in preventing much more serious injuries resulting from motor vehicle accidents.

In general, causes of disability are associated with an increasingly aging U.S. workforce.  Fortunately, medical advances have been successful in returning many persons back to work from otherwise previously permanently disabling conditions.  The best example of this is the successful treatment of HIV/AIDS with an array of medications. Further, changes in the perception of disabled persons performing work have changed which has allowed persons with physical and developmental disabilities to maintain employment.

What does this cost?  For example, Unum paid $3.8B in disability claims in 2017. It received 425,000 claims during that time period.

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