Mobility disability is a major problem in older people. Numerous scales exist for the measurement of disability but often these do not permit comparisons between study groups. The physical functioning (PF) domain of the established and widely used Short Form-36 (SF-36) questionnaire asks about limitations on ten mobility activities.
To describe prevalence of mobility disability in an elderly population, investigate the validity of the SF-36 PF score as a measure of mobility disability, and to establish age and sex specific norms for the PF score.
We explored relationships between the SF-36 PF score and objectively measured physical performance variables among 349 men and 280 women, 59-72 years of age, who participated in the Hertfordshire Cohort Study (HCS). Normative data were derived from the Health Survey for England (HSE) 1996.
32% of men and 46% of women had at least some limitation in PF scale items. Poor SF-36 PF scores (lowest fifth of the gender-specific distribution) were related to: lower grip strength; longer timed-up-and-go, 3m walk, and chair rises test times in men and women; and lower quadriceps peak torque in women but not men. HSE normative data showed that median PF scores declined with increasing age in men and women.
Our results are consistent with the SF-36 PF score being a valid measure of mobility disability in epidemiological studies. This approach might be a first step towards enabling simple comparisons of prevalence of mobility disability between different studies of older people. The SF-36 PF score could usefully complement existing detailed schemes for classification of disability and it now requires validation against them.