The Social Security Administration considers several factors to establish an individual's entitlement to Social Security disability or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability, and age is one of those criteria.
To ensure a more uniform disability process, Social Security established a set of vocational guidelines to aid disability examiners in their decision-making process. These medical-vocational guidelines have become known as the "medical-vocational grid," or simply "the grid."
Before we talk about the grid, we need to talk about RFC levels -- that is, what your residual functional capacity is. Social Security has established four physical categories to help evaluate the physical limits of the work an individual may be able to perform in spite of the limitations imposed upon them by their disabling condition or conditions. These categories are sedentary, light, medium, and heavy work. In general, sedentary work involves the lifting of no more than ten pounds at any time; light work involves the lifting of no more than ten pounds frequently and no more than twenty pounds occasionally; medium work involves the ability to lift twenty-five pounds frequently and fifty pounds occasionally; heavy work is the frequent lifting of more than fifty pounds.
What does the grid have to do with age affecting your ability to receive Social Security disability? The grid takes factors other than medical information into consideration when making a disability decision. These other factors include age, skills, and education, in addition to your residual functional capacity.
Social Security has set up age categories to help with the disability decision process. Individuals who are 18 to 44 are considered young individuals, those 45-49 are "younger" individuals, those 50-54 are considered to be closely approaching advanced age, individuals who are 55 and over are considered advanced age, and individuals 60-65 are considered closely approaching retirement age.
Social Security uses these age groups, along with an individual's residual functional capacity (that is, the ability to do sedentary, light, medium, and heavy weight work), the skill level of an individual's past work, and the individual's education to establish an individual's disability. For example, if you are 45-49, you have little formal education, and you are limited to sedentary work, you would most likely be denied disability if you are literate, even if you haven't performed skilled work before. But if you are over 50, you have little formal education, and you are limited to sedentary work, you will likely be granted disability benefits.
Learn more about the medical-vocational grid.
The medical-vocational grid rules are generally favorable if an individual is approaching advanced age (ages 50-54). If those age 50-54 are limited to sedentary work or less, and don't have work skills that transfer to other types work, they are likely to be approved for disability. Social Security does not expect these workers to go through a lot of vocational adjustment (retraining) to learn a sedentary job when they are approaching advanced age.
The Social Security medical-vocational rules, however, are most favorable to individuals who are 55 and older. If an individual is 55 or older and is limited even to light work, or less than a full range of medium work, they may be approved for disability even if they have a high school education and their prior work was unskilled or their skills are not transferable. Social Security expects a worker to take on very little vocational adjustment at this age.
These are just examples. Even if you do not fit the medical-vocational classifications for an approval at your age exactly, there is still a chance that your disability claim is winnable. If you are 49, 54, or 59, and you would qualify for disability under the age grid for 50-54, 55-59, or 60 and older, Social Security may treat you as if you had reached the next age category. For more information, see our article on getting disability when you're almost 50, 55, or 60.
Finally, age comes into play in evaluating children's SSI disability claims because children's claims are not assessed in the same manner. Children under 18 who file for SSI are evaluated on the basis of whether or not they have a severe impairment (mental, physical, or both) that results in "marked and severe functional limitations," rather than in an inability to work. In addition, the SSA has a different set of medical impairment listings for applicants under 18. Learn more about children's disability claims.