Leading Causes of Disability in the US & Worldwide: Key Factors & Responses

What Conditions Lead To Disability? What Strategies Should Be Used To Address These Causes & Their Results?

Disability is a common experience, affecting a significant portion of the global population. In the United States alone, an estimated 1 in 4 adults report having some kind of disability. This translates to roughly 92 million people aged 18 years or older, as of 2024 population tallies. Based on the 2019 Census, over 25% of US families had at least one family member with a disability. Globally, with a world population at 8 billion plus and climbing, the World Health Organization estimates that over 1.3 billion people experience disability. The real disability numbers may in fact be much higher. Definitions of disability range from the determining qualifications for governmental benefits, such as US Social Security, to more complex concepts of disability in various contexts.


These disabilities can range from mild to severe and can affect mobility, hearing, vision, cognition, or mental health. The impact of disability can be significant, affecting individuals and also their families and communities. People with disabilities may face challenges in employment, education, and social participation, with added hurdles in daily living including lowered access to transportation, increased healthcare costs on an individual and societal scale, and heavy economic implications both personally and communally due to reduced workforce participation.

Severe disabilities can also lead to a dramatically curtailed lifespan: in some cases, up to 20 years shorter. And, having a disability also increases the risk factor for further conditions, including diabetes, stroke, and depression.

Understanding the most common causes of disability is a crucial step towards creating a more supportive society. And, despite the fact that disability is inherently part of the human life experience, and it isn’t going away completely, more knowledge may lead to improvements in some of the underlying situations that frequently cause disability.

Disability & Common Conditions

Disability is any physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities. Some of the most common disability types include:

  • Vision: Visual impairments, full or partial blindness, low vision, color blindness
  • Hearing: Hearing loss in one or both ears, full or partial deafness
  • Mobility: Difficulty walking, trouble using stairs or public transportation
  • Cognition: Learning disabilities, memory loss, difficulties in concentration or decision making
  • Mental health: Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder

Other disabilities can include:

  • An inability to feel using the sense of touch, or changes in this type of sensation and how it is processed, which can be caused by neuropathy, carpal tunnel syndrome, burns, amputations, and spinal cord injuries.
  • Changes in or loss of taste and smell, which may be caused by infections, radiation therapy effects, vitamin deficiencies, anosmia, hyposmia, sinus infections, head injuries, and Parkinson’s disease.

Some disabilities can result in limited ability or inability to perform self-care activities like dressing or bathing. Sometimes, a person with certain disabilities may be unable to live independently for safety reasons, or because they need more extensive assistance with personal tasks.

These conditions can significantly impact daily life. For example, someone with vision loss may struggle to navigate unfamiliar environments or read text. This can limit access to physical spaces, making navigation and usage challenging. Hearing loss can affect communication, leading to difficulties in interpersonal relationships and community engagement. A person with mobility limitations might have difficulty using public transportation or climbing stairs. Cognitive disabilities can affect social interactions and a sense of belonging within the community. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may struggle to recognize familiar places or people, complicating social relationships. And for someone who has always lived independently, or who wishes to, the effects of a disability that lead to needing more assistance can be very frustrating. Any of these challenges can restrict access to education, employment, and social activities. And for some people, they may be just beginning to understand and adjust to a new disability that has changed their life.

Why Focus On Understanding Common Causes Of Disability?

Understanding the common causes of disability, like chronic diseases or injuries, may help with prevention efforts and management. For communities, advocacy organizations, and governmental bodies, this awareness can guide public health initiatives to reduce the incidence of preventable conditions, such as noise-induced hearing loss or diabetes-related complications. And on an individual basis, early intervention as well as healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce the risk of some conditions that lead to disability.

In addition, a better grasp of these causes could improve support for people who are already living with a disability. Proper management of underlying conditions, involving appropriate medical treatment, the use of assistive technologies, and supportive environments, can help them maintain a good quality of life and pursue their goals. For people who are not themselves living with a disability, but who live with or care about someone who has a disability, this knowledge could increase their empathy or direct them to practical resources.

Expanding Support Initiatives

Increased awareness of disability can give communities and individuals the grounding they need to create support initiatives. Community-level support might involve creating accessible public spaces and providing educational programs about disability awareness. On a personal level, understanding a loved one's disability can help families provide more targeted assistance. This kind of support can include simple but essential basics, like helping a family member or partner with their daily tasks.

Globally, disability advocacy groups and online resources can offer support and information to people with disabilities around the world. These efforts can range from local support groups to international organizations working to improve the lives of people with disabilities, encouraging and guiding inclusion and accessibility. By working together, individuals, families, communities, and governments can create a more inclusive world for everyone.

Leading Causes Of Disability In The US

In the United States, several major influences and elements contribute to the high prevalence of disability.

  • Chronic Diseases
    These long-term conditions, such as arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are prevalent in the United States, and are leading causes of disability, and can lead to secondary disabilities. They can cause pain, fatigue, limitations on mobility, major organ dysfunction and other lowered bodily functions, severely impacting quality of life as well as reducing expected lifespan.
  • Mental Health Disorders
    Conditions like major depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can significantly impact a person's ability to participate in daily activities. These conditions affect mood, thinking, and behavior, leading to difficulties in maintaining employment, relationships, and overall functioning. Secondary impairments may also develop as a result of these conditions, further impacting lives and function.
  • Accidents & Injuries
    Accidents and injuries, including those from traffic accidents, falls, and workplace incidents, are common causes of disability that can result in long-term or permanent impairments, including spinal cord damage, traumatic brain injuries, and other serious effects.
  • Infectious Diseases
    Infectious diseases common in the US, such as Lyme disease or HIV/AIDS, contribute to disability. These diseases can lead to chronic symptoms, including fatigue, pain, and neurological issues, impacting the capacity to work and engage in social activities. Long COVID, in particular, has become a notable cause of disability in recent years, with persistent symptoms that affect many aspects of life.
  • Birth Defects
    Birth defects are a significant cause of disability in the US. These are problems that happen while a baby is developing in the womb and can affect any part of a child's body, including the brain, spinal cord, or limbs. Conditions such as congenital heart defects, spina bifida, and Down syndrome can lead to lifelong disabilities, often requiring ongoing medical care, special education, and support services. Birth defects can range from mild to severe and can cause physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities.

Invisible Disabilities: What Are They?

invisible disabilities such as adhd fibromyalgia dyslexia crohns arthritis

Some disabilities, and the causes of these disabilities, are what’s termed invisible. This is not because their effects aren’t felt, but because they either aren’t obvious, or because they are discounted by medical caregivers. In many cases, these disabilities are ignored or not included in definitions of disability for purposes of governmental benefits or ADA-guided workplace accommodations. Examples of invisible disabilities include fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Invisible disabilities like chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) are gradually becoming more recognized and acknowledged, partly due to increased awareness campaigns, with organizations and advocacy groups working to raise awareness and educate the public and healthcare providers about the symptoms and challenges faced by people with these conditions. And, as medical research advances, understanding of these conditions improves, which can lead to better diagnosis, treatment options, and recognition from healthcare professionals. Overall, while progress is being made, increased recognition and acceptance of invisible disabilities like CFS is an ongoing effort.

Common Causes Of Disability Around The World

The causes of disability vary depending on a country's level of development and resources, and on other factors. Even among affluent nations, social health determinants like occupational safety regulations and mental health support can significantly impact disability rates. In South Korea, a wealthy nation with a high GDP, there is a high prevalence of work-related musculoskeletal disorders due to long working hours and a culture of overwork. These factors can lead to chronic pain and limitations in mobility, contributing to disability. In less wealthy or less well-developed nations, resource limitations can drastically raise the causes and effects of disability.

Resource-poor and conflict-affected countries often experience higher rates of disability due to a combination of factors including:

  • Limited access to quality healthcare: This can lead to a lack of diagnosis, treatment, and preventative measures for chronic conditions and infectious diseases.
  • Poor nutrition: Malnutrition can hinder growth and development, increasing susceptibility to illness and impacting long-term health.
  • Unsafe environments: Landmines, inadequate sanitation, and violence all cause injuries and disabilities. Damaged or missing infrastructure and exposure to environmental contaminants are also causes of disability, and exacerbating factors in both disabling damage and the ability to manage conditions.
  • Limited access to assistive technologies: Wheelchairs, prosthetics, and other devices can significantly improve the quality of life for people with disabilities, but these resources are scarce in some countries.

Disability Causes In Impoverished Regions & Combat Zones

Infectious Diseases

Infectious diseases remain a significant cause of disability in lower-income and less-developed countries. Malaria and tuberculosis are prevalent due to inadequate healthcare infrastructure and limited access to to preventative measures and effective treatments. Malaria can cause severe neurological damage; tuberculosis can lead to lung damage and other complications. Lasting damage to organs and tissues can lead to chronic health problems and disability.

Nutritional Deficiencies

Lack of access to nutritious food can lead to deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals. Severe deficiencies can cause blindness, such as vision loss resulting from vitamin A deficiency, cognitive impairments, such as those caused by iodine deficiency, and stunted growth during critical developmental periods, all of which can contribute to physical and cognitive disabilities.

War & Conflict

Armed conflict is a major driver of disability around the world. Injuries sustained during wartime can cause permanent disabilities. Armed conflict also contributes significantly to disability rates through psychological trauma. Explosions, gunfire, and other forms of violence lead to physical injuries, including amputations and spinal cord injuries. Psychological trauma from conflict situations results in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. The disruption of healthcare services during conflict can exacerbate these issues, making recovery and rehabilitation challenging.

Understanding these common causes of disability in various regions across the globe highlights the need for targeted interventions wherever possible, to effectively prevent and manage disabilities.

Common Disability Types Around The World

Some of the common disabilities found in different national or regional settings, including those with lower income or missing infrastructure, include:

  • Vision Impairment: Cataracts, trachoma, and uncorrected refractive errors are all leading causes of vision impairment, which can be particularly debilitating in environments with limited resources.
  • Hearing Impairment: Otitis media, a common childhood ear infection, can lead to permanent hearing loss if left untreated. This is especially common in areas with limited access to healthcare.
  • Musculoskeletal Disorders: These can be caused by malnutrition, infectious diseases, and work-related injuries.
  • Intellectual Disabilities: While the exact causes are often complex, factors like malnutrition and infectious diseases during pregnancy and early childhood can increase the risk of intellectual disabilities.
  • Mental Health Conditions: Conflict, displacement, and poverty can all take a toll on mental health. However, due to stigma and lack of resources, mental health conditions are often undiagnosed and untreated.

South Sudan, for example, which gained independence in 2011, has been ravaged by civil war for much of its recent history. This conflict has displaced millions of people, destroyed infrastructure, and limited access to healthcare and other essential services. As a result, South Sudan has a high prevalence of disabilities. A 2023 report states that the current number of people with disabilities in South Sudan is likely much higher than the 5% reported in the most recent census, possibly reaching 1.2 million people, or 16% of the population as a conservative estimate.

As we have mentioned earlier in this article, the definition of disability may also affect these statistics, whether they are assessed through government tallies or self-reporting. In peaceful, developed countries, disability definitions may look at limitations in daily activities and participation in society, while taking into consideration the availability of assistive technologies and social support systems. In conflict zones, access to healthcare, rehabilitation, and assistive devices may be severely limited. At the same time that definitions of disability may be viewed differently, in local cultural context and in relative comparison to a high prevalence of physical and psychological injuries due to war and poverty, there is also a lack of resources to manage disability, leading to worse conditions for people with impairments who would manage well with more assistance and options. And, some disadvantaged populations may be excluded not only from the resources to deal with a disability, but even from official census counts.

Age And Disability: A Global Trend

Conditions such as arthritis, hearing loss, vision impairment, and cognitive decline affect many older adults. The percentage of the global population experiencing these disabilities is higher than ever, in part because many people are living longer. With increased life expectancy, more individuals are reaching ages where these disabilities commonly appear.

Proactive Strategies For Healthier Aging

As populations age globally, and age-related disabilities become more prevalent, preventative measures are more important than ever in mitigating the impact of age-related disabilities.

  • Healthy Lifestyles
    Positive habits like regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and preventive healthcare can help maintain physical and cognitive health throughout the aging process. Early detection and management of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, can prevent complications that lead to disabilities. Access to regular health screenings and vaccinations can help identify and address issues early. Social engagement and mental health support are also critical factors in maintaining well-being in aging populations.
  • Accessible Environments
    Creating aging-friendly communities with accessible infrastructure, ramps, clear signage, public transportation options, and community support services to meet the needs of older adults can encourage mobility and independence, and help prevent accidents. Education on fall prevention and safe living spaces can also contribute to reducing injury risks.
  • Research Investment 
    Continued research on age-related diseases and disabilities can lead to improved treatments, preventative measures, and assistive technologies.

Global and local efforts should focus on integrating these preventative measures into public health strategies to effectively address the needs of an aging population.

Reducing Disability Rates: Preventative Measures

Preventative healthcare, timely interventions, and strong public health policies can significantly reduce disability rates worldwide. Early detection and treatment of health issues can help prevent them from progressing and causing disability, and conditions that lead to disability. Public health initiatives that advocate for and support healthier lifestyles, and effective public health policies, such as instituting vaccination programs and providing affordable or no-cost access to nutritious food, can be major influences in lowering the rates of preventable disability. Giving communities access to the resources and information necessary to maintain health and well-being is a necessary and tremendous step forward that impacts not only individuals and their families, but communities and entire nations.

Leading By Example: Successful Initiatives To Lower Disability Rates


Initiative or Policy
Japan implemented community-based rehabilitation programs focused on integrating disabled individuals into their communities. These programs provide physical therapy, vocational training, and social support to help people with disabilities lead independent lives. Local healthcare professionals and volunteers work together to deliver services.

Positive Effects
These programs have successfully lowered disability rates by improving quality of life and functional abilities for people with disabilities in Japan, leading to increased participation in social and economic activities.


Initiative or Policy
Ethiopia launched a national program to prevent and manage neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). This group of preventable conditions common in low-income countries can cause chronic disabilities like blindness and limb weakness. The program focuses on mass drug administration, education campaigns, and improved sanitation to reduce NTD transmission.

Positive Effects
Ethiopia's NTD control program has significantly decreased disability rates caused by these diseases. By preventing infections and providing treatment, the program safeguards the health and well-being of millions of Ethiopians.


Initiative or Policy

  1. Finland has established a comprehensive early childhood health screening program. This program includes regular health checks for children, aiming to detect and address developmental issues and chronic conditions early. Screenings cover physical, cognitive, and emotional development and are conducted in schools and healthcare centers.
  2. Finland also has a well-established system of universal healthcare that provides comprehensive medical care and rehabilitation services to all citizens. This system emphasizes early intervention and preventive care, encouraging healthy aging and reducing disability rates among older adults.

Positive Effects

  1. Finland’s early childhood health screening initiative has led to early identification and management of potential disabilities, significantly reducing the incidence of long-term disabilities in the population. This has contributed to better health outcomes and reduced healthcare costs.
  2. Finland's universal healthcare system is credited with contributing to the country's low rates of disability. By guaranteeing full access to quality healthcare for all, Finland champions healthy living and supports individuals with disabilities throughout their lives.


Initiative or Policy
Bangladesh implemented a community-based rehabilitation program that provides physical therapy, occupational therapy, and assistive devices to people with disabilities in rural areas. The program trains community health workers to identify and support people with disabilities, upholding their independence and stimulating social participation.

Positive Effects
This program has demonstrably reduced disability rates in Bangladesh, particularly in rural communities. By providing essential services and effectively boosting inclusion, the program has offered people with disabilities better options to live more fulfilling lives.

What’s Preventing Prevention? Obstacles To Disability Mitigation

Despite some significant progress, disability prevention and management continue to face hurdles in multiple arenas.

Resource Allocation

Budget limits can restrict investment in preventative measures like public health programs and early intervention services. This can lead to missed opportunities to prevent conditions that cause disability. Limited funding restricts the availability of necessary medical services, rehabilitation programs, and assistive technologies, at an administrative level and for individuals who can’t afford care. This often results in prioritizing acute care over preventive measures, which can lead to higher costs in the long run, and increased rates of long-term disability such as in the US and other countries with restricted access to healthcare due to high cost. Inadequate resources also affect training for healthcare professionals, reducing their ability to provide effective care for individuals with disabilities. And, even in places with reasonable budget allowances, allocation challenges can limit access to assistive technologies and rehabilitation services for people with disabilities.

Limited Healthcare Access

Limited healthcare access further complicates efforts to prevent and manage disabilities. Without adequate access to healthcare, whether it’s because of unavailable services in underserved areas, or due to a lack of individual or regional funding or other financial barriers, people may struggle to obtain timely medical care, leading to delays in diagnosis and treatment, and they may delay seeking medical attention for chronic conditions or injuries. This can exacerbate health conditions and worsen outcomes, increasing the likelihood of disability. Limited access to preventative care, such as screenings and vaccinations, can leave people vulnerable to preventable conditions that lead to long-term disabilities.

Insufficient resources and a lack of access to healthcare services significantly hampers the ability to implement effective disability prevention and management strategies, ultimately affecting the well-being of individuals, communities, and by extension, the overall health status and disability rates in their countries.

Rising To The Challenges Of Disability Prevention

Understanding the leading causes of disability, both in the US and globally, highlights the need for effective prevention and management strategies. Addressing chronic diseases, mental health disorders, accidents, and infectious diseases can significantly reduce disability rates. Equally important are efforts to create accessible environments and supportive communities for those living with disabilities.

Successful initiatives around the world demonstrate that targeted policies and programs can make a substantial impact. These effective measures and their marked results show the importance of proactive approaches. Investing in preventative measures and providing access to healthcare services help make the world more inclusive for people with disabilities, at local and global levels. And, these initiatives create an environment where fewer people are likely to need accessibility options and services.

Taking care of health and safety is in everyone’s best interest. By focusing on preventing disease, managing conditions, and crafting safer environments, societies can work together to help people lead longer, healthier lives. This approach helps prevent disability and dramatically improves well-being for individuals and communities alike.


What are the top 10 causes of disability in the US and globally?

Arthritis and other musculoskeletal issues such as muscle pain or back and joint injuries, different types of cancer (often throat and lung cancers overall, and lymphoma or leukemia most prevalent in young adults), injuries of many kinds including those resulting from surgery and accidents, cardiovascular issues and heart disease, drug use addiction and disorders, diabetes mellitus, pregnancy, and stroke are the leading causes of disability in the United States, followed closely by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and major depressive disorders. Infectious diseases, problems with the digestive system, and lung or respiratory conditions including COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are also among the top disability-causing conditions in the US and elsewhere. Neurological conditions and issues of the nervous system are also a leading cause of disability worldwide, including disorders of the eyes and ears, MS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and others. Neurological conditions and neurodevelopmental disorders affected about 43% of the global population as of a 2021 Lancet study.

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