Old Age Isn't as Bad as It Used to Be

Study says we're living longer, but not necessarily at a cost to quality of life.

National Journal

A lot of the news about the state of American health isn't all that great. There are rising obesity rates; the fact that some U.S. counties have a lower infant mortality rate than some Third World countries; the disparity of HIV infections in poor, black communities — and we can go on. But, for now, never mind those maladies and consider a study released by Harvard and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The bottom-line finding is this: Lifespan is increasing, but there's evidence that suggests it's not necessarily at the cost of quality of life. The chart below shows that when comparing two three-year periods — in the 90s and the aughts — people are both living more years disability-free and fewer years disabled.

(Harvard University and National Bureau of Economic Research)

The study's author call this trend "the compression of morbidity," meaning that the decline in quality of life seen before death are being packed in a smaller time frame, and packed closer to death. These numbers come from a 10,000-person sample compiled from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey. Of course, determining what qualifies as disabled isn't so cut and dry. Nonfatal illnesses and ailments such as arthritis, for example, are not considered to be hindrances to quality of life in this survey. The researchers looked at an array of illnesses, measures of health, and, most instructively, reports of daily activities (ADL and IADL measures, which are, basically, the ability to perform tasks such as bathing and going out for groceries — the normal stuff that gets harder to accomplish as we age.)

It's not all peachy, as the author's do find that people report more arthritis and diabetes. But here's the silver lining: "People have more diseases than they used to, but the severe disablement that disease used to imply has been reduced."

So it's not that we're getting sicker than we used to; instead, illnesses aren't deteriorating quality of life the way they used to.