OBJECTIVES: To determine whether a simple question about steadiness at admission predicts in-hospital functional decline and whether unsteadiness at admission predicts failure of in-hospital functional recovery of patients who have declined immediately before hospitalization. DESIGN: Prospective cohort study. SETTING: One university hospital and one community teaching hospital. PARTICIPANTS: One thousand five hundred fifty-seven hospitalized medical patients aged 70 and older. MEASUREMENTS: On admission, patients reported their steadiness with walking and whether they could perform independently each of five basic activities of daily living (ADLs) at admission and 2 weeks before admission (baseline). For the primary analysis, the outcome was decline in ADL function between admission and discharge. For the secondary analysis, the outcome was in-hospital recovery to baseline ADL function in patients who experienced ADL decline in the 2 weeks before admission. RESULTS: In the primary cohort (n = 1,557), 25% of patients were very unsteady at admission; 22% of very unsteady patients declined during hospitalization, compared with 17%, 18%, and 10% for slightly unsteady, slightly steady, and very steady patients, respectively (P for trend = .001). After adjusting for age; medical comorbidities; Acute Physiology, Age, and Chronic Health Evaluation II score; and admission ADL, unsteadiness remained significantly associated with ADL decline (odds for decline for very unsteady compared with very steady = 2.6, 95% confidence interval = 1.5-4.5). In the secondary analysis, predicting ADL recovery in patients who declined before hospitalization (n = 563), 46% of patients were very unsteady at admission. In this cohort, 44% of very unsteady patients failed to recover, compared with 35%, 36%, and 33% for each successively higher level of steadiness, respectively (P for trend = 0.06). After multivariate adjustment, greater unsteadiness independently predicted failure of recovery (P for trend = 0.02). CONCLUSION: A simple question about steadiness identified patients at increased risk for in-hospital ADL decline and, in patients who lost ADL function immediately before admission, failure to recover.