Seniors Enjoy More Disability-Free Years

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Persistent increases in U.S. life expectancy are widely recognized. But if we’re living longer, what’s also important is whether those additional years of life are healthy years.

Even using this higher standard, the news is good.

A 65-year-old American today can expect to live to about age 84 – or about one year and four months longer than a 65-year-old in the early 1990s, according to a new study. But there was a bigger increase – one year and 10 months – in the time the elderly enjoy being free of disabling medical conditions that limit their quality of life.

The researchers, a team of economists and biostatisticians at Harvard, pinpointed two conditions that are the dominant reasons the elderly are remaining healthier longer: dramatic declines in cardiovascular conditions in the form of heart disease and stroke, and improved vision, which allows seniors to remain independent and active.

The study used medical data from a Medicare survey that asks a wide range of questions about the respondents’ ability to function and perform basic tasks.  The researchers found a decline in the share of seniors reporting they have some sort of disability – to about 42 percent currently – and most of this decline occurred during the final months or years of a person’s life.

They also tried to identify the primary reasons for the health improvements, though they were cautious about these results.   Heart attacks and strokes are major causes of death in this country.  But cardiovascular disease is being treated aggressively – with statins, beta-blockers, even low-dose aspirin – and the treatments might have reduced mortality and the prevalence of heart attacks.

The reason behind the dramatic improvements in vision might be the rising number of cataract surgeries, which allow seniors to remain active and perhaps extend their working lives and the number of years they can drive a car.

Medical advances, the study concluded, are “likely responsible for a significant part of the cardiovascular and vision-related extension of healthy life.”

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Alex Pham

That is good news! What I’d love to see is an ROI analysis on spending for treatments that improve the quality of life for seniors, versus spending that simply extends life through heroic interventions towards the end of life. I suppose one can’t always know which treatments fall into which category, but this might be a good conversation to have nevertheless.


That’s a tough analysis to make. Having just gone through this with my mother (died 8/17/16), at some point treatments intended to improve quality of life morph themselves into simply extending life. Technology and medicine today are incredible, even to the point of masking when you crossed that line. Ultimately, the call has to be made – no heroic interventions. (Still, 96 years of relatively good health speaks volumes about living healthier longer.)

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