Purpose: to describe common trajectories of physical functioning and their determinants among an adult cohort, followed over a period of 15 years.

Methods: the study sample consisted of 4,123 participants (initial ages 26–70 years) from the Doetinchem Cohort Study, who participated in three or four measurement cycles. Physical functioning was measured with the Dutch version of the SF-36. Using a group-based modelling strategy, trajectories of physical functioning were determined. Weighted multinomial logistic regression analyses were performed to identify socio-demographic, lifestyle and health characteristics that differentiate between the trajectories at baseline.

Results: five common physical functioning trajectories were distinguished, labelled as ‘stable not limited’ (27% of the population), ‘stable slightly limited’ (54%), ‘slightly limited substantial deterioration’ (7%), ‘moderately limited gradual improvement’ (9%) and ‘stable severely limited’ (3%). The characteristics that differentiate between the trajectories with limitations and the trajectory ‘stable not limited’ were being female, older, physically inactive, overweight or obese, having one or more chronic conditions, poor mental health and poor self-perceived health at baseline. Being younger, physically active, less obese, living with a partner and a good perceived health were characteristics of the trajectory ‘moderately limited gradual improvement’ compared with ‘stable severely limited’.

Conclusion: five common trajectories of physical functioning were distinguished in an adult cohort, with most individuals following a stable but slightly limited course of physical functioning. Some early risk indicators were found that in the future might be used to early identify those with limitations in physical functioning.

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