This Old Man…Is Pretty Healthy!

Longer life expectancy paired with more years of health among Americans

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) It's no secret that Americans' life expectancy has been gradually increasing. This is great news — as long as adults can spend those extra years happy and healthy.
A recent study offers good news on that last point. It appears that Americans who are living longer are also living longer without health problems.

In fact, the number of years adults suffer from health issues or disabilities toward the end of their lives has been decreasing. 

Over the past two decades, as our life expectancies have climbed, so has the quality of our health.

"Plan for a long, healthy life."

The study, led by David M. Cutler, of Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, aimed to understand whether adults living longer were also living more healthily, or whether they experienced more illnesses at the end of their lives.

The researchers relied on data about the elderly population between 1991 and 2009 that was gathered from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey.

The survey includes data for more than 10,000 individuals each year, and the researchers linked these individuals to death records through 2008.

The researchers looked for all evidence of illness or health problems among these individuals through the end of the study or death.

This evidence included the person's having any disease, reporting a disability and having any impairments to functioning, based on 19 different dimensions of health.

Then the researchers calculated the "disability-free" life expectancy and the disabled life expectancy among the adults.

The findings bode well: "We show that disability-free life expectancy is increasing over time, while disabled life expectancy is falling," the researchers wrote.

In other words, not only are people living longer, but they are living healthier longer.

They are not experiencing a rapid increase in health problems at the end of their lives despite living for more years.

For example, the authors reported, the life expectancy of the average adult aged 65 increased by 0.7 years between 1992 and 2005.

Yet only 0.1 of those years involve living longer with a disease; the other 0.6 years were found to be disease-free for older adults today.  

Meanwhile, that adult's disability-free life expectancy — the number of years they spent without any significant health problems — increased by 1.6 years during that time span.

During the same time period, disabled life expectancy — the years an adult would expect to spend with a major health problem — declined an average of 0.9 years.

"The reduction in disabled life expectancy and increase in disability-free life expectancy is true for both genders and for non-whites as well as whites," the authors wrote.

People still experience increased health problems at the very, very end of their lives, the authors reported, but this time period is now only a year or two instead of five to ten years.

"With the exception of the year or two just before death, people are healthier than they used to be," Cutler said in a prepared statement.

"Effectively, the period of time in which we're in poor health is being compressed until just before the end of life," he said.

"So where we used to see people who are very, very sick for the final six or seven years of their life, that's now far less common," he explained. "People are living to older ages and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones."

The reasons people are living healthier lives for longer times vary.

For those with cardiovascular conditions, the improved outcomes are likely related to better care that's available and the availability of cholesterol-lowering drugs, the authors said.

They noted that some conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's are still not preventable and still not easily slowed down, but there are many conditions that are more treatable today than in the past.

The study was published July 29 at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Aging. Information on disclosures was unavailable.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
July 29, 2013
Last Updated:
July 29, 2013