People Live Healthier In Their Later Years
July 29, 2013

People Live Healthier In Their Later Years

[WATCH VIDEO: Americans Live Longer, Exercise More]

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Many people fear that the last few years of their lives will be filled with health-related hardships. However, Harvard researcher David Cutler has found via a new study that people are leading increasingly healthier lives at older ages.

"With the exception of the year or two just before death, people are healthier than they used to be," Cutler said. "Effectively, the period of time in which we're in poor health is being compressed until just before the end of life. 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."

"People are living to older ages and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones," he added.

For his study, Cutler first had to reconcile two competing views on life expectancy.

"There are two basic scenarios that people have proposed about the end of life," he said. "The first argues that what medical science is doing is turning us into light bulbs -- that is, we work well until suddenly we die. This is also called the rectangularization of the life curve, and what it says is that we're going to have a fairly high quality of life until the very end."

"The other idea says life is a series of strokes, and medical care has simply gotten better at saving us,” Cutler continued. "So we can live longer because we've prevented death, but those years are not in very good health, and they are very expensive -- we're going to be in wheelchairs, in and out of hospitals and in nursing homes."

Instead of looking at how long someone lived from birth, as many previous studies have -- Cutler said it makes more sense to look at life in the opposite direction.

"Most of our surveys measure health at different ages, and then use a model to estimate how long people have to live," he said. "But the right way to do this is to measure health backwards from death, not forwards. We should start when someone dies, then go back a year and measure their health, then go back two years, three years, and so on."

The Harvard economist found that data from Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey (MCBS) allowed him to flip the traditional view of life expectancy. The survey responses allowed him to calculate how far from death a person was who had filled out a particular survey and what quality of life they had at the time.

Cutler said he hopes to use this information to look at specific conditions and see why some are less debilitating than they were in the past.

"There seems to be a clear relationship between some conditions that are no longer as debilitating as they once were and areas of improvement in medicine," he said. "The most obvious is cardiovascular disease -- there are many fewer heart attacks today than there used to be, because people are now taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, and recovery is much better from heart attacks and strokes than it used to be."

"A person who suffered a stroke used to be totally disabled, but now many will survive and live reasonable lives," Cutler noted. "People also rebound quite well from heart attacks."

The economist added that people are also living more health-conscious lives, which helps to prevent long-term health conditions.