This Awful Disease Is the No. 1 Cause of Disability in the U.S.

Unexpected health problems cause a number of disabilities among millions of Americans every year. The most common cause of disability in the United States probably isn’t what you think it is — and you could be at risk of developing it. It’s not workplace accidents. It’s not COPD — it’s not even heart disease. Find out where these and other issues fall on the list.

15. Infections


Make sure to treat an infection as soon as you know you have one. | Areeya_ann/iStock/Getty Images∫hy

Infections that go untreated or resist treatment can change a person’s life forever. People living with HIV/AIDS, for example, can technically qualify for disability benefits only if they have secondary infections like bacterial, fungal, or viral illnesses preventing them from functioning in their everyday lives.

Next: This is more than just a stomach ache.

14. Digestive disorders

Woman having stomach pain

You probably had no idea digestive disorders could be so serious. |

It’s worse than calling in sick once or twice a quarter because of an upset stomach — some employees really are too sick to keep their jobs. People with inflammatory bowel disease or Crohn’s disease, for example, might be able to qualify for disability if their symptoms are severe enough to prevent them from working.

Next: Strokes can sometimes cause a chronic condition in this category.

13. Respiratory diseases

sick man coughing

COPD and severe asthma can set you back big time. |

Lung and related diseases like COPD, emphysema, and even severe asthma can all cause disability if the affected person can’t work due to debilitating symptoms. Smoking is a common cause of respiratory problems, and you can’t qualify for disability benefits if you have any of these conditions but continue to smoke cigarettes.

Next: This chronic condition increases your risk of many others.

12. Obesity

athlete stepping on a scale

Your weight might be hindering you. | Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

People who are overweight or obese risk developing many of the chronic conditions that appear on this list, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Unless someone’s weight interferes with their ability to travel from place to place, it’s usually the health problems caused by obesity that lead to disability.

Next: Chronic pain is no joke.

11. Back pain

older man with back pain being helped by his wife

Even back pain can be disabling. | KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images 

Back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under the age of 45. Many people with chronic pain apply for disability benefits because their symptoms are severe enough to prevent them from being able to work.

Next: People living with these conditions are usually categorized as disabled.

10. Developmental disorders


People with autism are often categorized as having a disability. | Mauricio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

Just because a person lives with a developmental disability doesn’t necessarily mean they cannot work. Many adults living with autism spectrum disorder, for example, are still able to hold jobs and live independently. Those who cannot often qualify for benefits and assistance.

Next: These unexpected events can cause both short- and long-term disability.

9. Accidents

A woman with her broken leg in a plaster cast

This will make you want to be even more careful than usual. | Carl Court/Getty Images

When people are fortunate enough to survive life-threatening accidents — another leading cause of death in the United States — many often end up disabled in some capacity, temporarily or for life. These accidents can occur at work or elsewhere, and are often impossible to predict or prevent.

Next: Most people don’t consider this an actual disability.

8. Pregnancy

A woman working with her child in her arms

Oddly enough, pregnancy made the list. | Monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Pregnancy itself is not a disability. But many women cannot qualify for paid leave from their jobs while pregnant after giving birth, making them unable to keep their jobs because of their decision to have a baby. For many women, 12 weeks — if they’re awarded that much — isn’t enough.

Next: When you lose control of your nervous system, you lose control of everything.

7. Nervous system disorders

Senior woman in hospital

MS is a tough illness to deal with. | 

Multiple sclerosis, one type of disability-causing nervous system disorder, is also a common cause of disability in the United States. Around 20 new cases are diagnosed each week. People living with MS and similar conditions often experience higher rates of disability the longer they have it.

Next: This disease can be deadlier than you think.

6. Diabetes

Man checking blood sugar level

This can be seriously life-threatening if it goes untreated. |

Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease in the United States. Your risk for experiencing disabling or life-threatening complications increases if you have additional chronic health conditions or uncontrolled blood sugar.

Next: Many people don’t know you can qualify for disability benefits if you have this.

5. Mental health issues

A sad and depressed young man

Mental health can interfere with your life, just like a physical disability. | 

A person can be classified as having a disability if their mental or emotional health interferes with daily activities such as going to work or shopping for groceries. Depression and anxiety are both common causes of disability nationwide.

Next: This disease is so common that you probably know at least one person who has had it.

4. Cancer

Chemotherapy drugs are shown at Cape Fear Valley Medical Center

Cancer is scarily on the rise. | Chris Hondros/Getty Images

There are over 200 types of cancer, and it’s likely you know someone who has been diagnosed — if you haven’t yourself yet. It impacts thousands of people nationwide, and often leaves them unfit to work even after using medical leave.

Next: This is the leading cause of preventable disability.

3. Stroke

Close-up of surgeons hands holding surgical scissors and passing surgical equipment , motion blur background.

If you have a stroke, there’s a good chance you’ll become disabled. | 

According to the American Stroke Association, someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds. It is the leading cause of preventable disability, meaning there are a number of things you can do to avoid having one that hundreds of thousands never consider until it’s too late.

Next: This is the leading cause of death in the U.S.

2. Heart disease

heart monitor

This type of disease can also be devastating. | Evryka23/iStock/Getty Images

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and forces many to apply for disability benefits every year. High blood pressure is one of the most common causes of heart disease and related conditions, increasing your risk of stroke, diabetes, and more.

Next: This disease causes chronic pain and widespread disability across the country.

1. Arthritis

Physical therapist helping a patient

This inflammatory disease is the most common cause of disability. | iStock/Getty Images

Arthritis is a type of rheumatic disease that causes painful inflammation in your joints. Lupus, gout, and fibromyalgia fall under the same umbrella, also contributing to the 54 million or more adults who have been told by a doctor that they have this condition. It is the most common cause of disability in the United States, interfering with the lives of nearly half the population that has it.

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