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 panel.
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 University.
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 diabetes.
"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 public.
He said the public could become galvanized by the large number of U.S. military personnel returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with "terrible disabilities."