Living with disability: Patterns of health problems and symptom mediation of health consequences

Brandon J. Patterson, Pharm.D., William R. Doucette, Ph.D., Scott D. Lindgren, Ph.D., Elizabeth A. Chrischilles, Ph.D.

Published Online: April 23, 2012

Disability and Health Journal, July 2012 Volume 5, Issue 3, Pages 151–158



People with disability experience a range of symptoms that may serve as an important linkage between disability and other health consequences. The aims of this study were to describe and compare symptom experiences of people with and without disability using a population-based sample and to test direct relationships between disability and health status and indirect effects of disability mediated through symptom experience.


A Midwestern sample of 12,249 adults aged 40 and older responded to a cross-sectional survey. Data collected included symptom prevalence and frequencies for 21 commonly reported symptoms, self-perceived health status and physical functioning, number of medications, and demographic variables. Two mediation analyses were conducted using cumulative symptom frequency as the mediator between disability status and both self-rated health and physical functioning.


Adults with disability reported significantly greater prevalence and frequencies for all 21 symptoms, with pain and fatigue being the most common. The indirect effect through cumulative symptom frequency explained roughly half of the total effect of disability on general health status, and about one third of the total effect of disability on physical functioning.


This study found evidence supporting the diverse and significant symptom experience of people living with disability, especially for symptoms of pain and fatigue. Moreover, symptom experience was found to partially mediate the effects of disability on self-reported general health status and physical functioning. This provides support for symptoms serving as an important link to health outcomes in patients with disability.