Preventive Health Screening Recommendations for Individuals Aging with Disabilities

By Richardson-Heron, Dara P. | The Exceptional Parent, August 2007 | Go to article overview

Preventive Health Screening Recommendations for Individuals Aging with Disabilities


Richardson-Heron, Dara P., The Exceptional Parent


Thanks to significant advances in healthcare--particularly, intensive care for newborns, early diagnosis and treatment, as well as improvements in chronic care and preventive healthcare management--65 percent to 90 percent of children diagnosed with cerebral palsy survive. More than 90 percent of individuals with cerebral palsy who have mild to moderate impairments have a survival rate that is very close to the non-cerebral palsy population. Individuals with other developmental disabilities such as mental retardation, spina bifida, epilepsy, and Down syndrome also appear to be leading longer, healthier, and more productive lives.

As the baby boomer generation ages, the need for healthcare practitioners who are well-versed in the issues of geriatric healthcare will increase. There have always been challenges for people with disabilities when it comes to assessing quality healthcare; however, as this population ages, practitioners must be able to recognize the additional potential for chronic illnesses that may occur in a person with a disability especially illnesses that may be prevented by providing high quality general and preventive healthcare.

Motor impairments (e.g. difficulty with movement and posture) and other associated medical conditions in individuals with disabilities may speed up the "typical" aging process. "Typical" aging is usually accompanied by a high rate of medical and functional problems (i.e. arthritis, heart disease, etc.) after age 70. However, in some individuals with a disability, an "aging gap" develops and they begin to show higher rates of medical and functional problems at age 50 or younger--20 or more years earlier than the population without disabilities.

While it is not entirely clear what causes this "aging gap," it is very clear that because of the potential for earlier development of these chronic and often debilitating health problems in the population with disabilities, it is critically important for healthcare providers, individuals with disabilities, families, and caregivers to make sure that individuals with disabilities receive the appropriate medical and preventive healthcare and other environmental supports they require throughout their lifespan so that they may focus on maximizing their abilities as they age.

Basic preventive healthcare recommendations (i.e. exercise, healthy diet, smoking cessation) and preventive health screening should be an integral part of the overall healthcare plan for all individuals. However it is a particularly important component of the overall healthcare plan for individuals with disabilities.

The general preventive health screening recommendations for individuals aging with disabilities (listed in the table on page 30) highlight specific recommendations for screenings that should be incorporated into the overall health care plan for individuals with disabilities. Please note that these guidelines are presented solely to assist individuals with disabilities and their family members/caregivers to begin a dialogue with their primary care physician about the importance of preventive healthcare.

It is very important to note that, depending upon the individual's disability and health status, additional preventive health screenings may be required. Also, additional screening may be necessary to meet specific residential/program requirements.

The greatest advantage of preventive health screening is identifying and detecting problems early in an attempt to avoid serious illness and prevent further functional deterioration. If physicians focus their efforts on excellent general and preventive medical care, individuals with disabilities will continue to benefit from advances in healthcare and enjoy the healthy and independent lives they deserve as they age.

For more information on preventive health screening see the table on page 30.

Dara P. Richardson-Heron M.D. is Chief Medical Officer at United Cerebral Palsy of New York City. …

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