Americans living more years without disabilities, study finds

August 19, 2013

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that Americans’ functional measures of health are improving, and more so the further away from death the person is.

If it has seemed in recent years that your patients are not only living longer but staying healthier for more of their lives, it’s not your imagination.

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that Americans’ functional measures of health are improving, and more so the further away from death the person is. For more and more Americans, in other words, morbidity increasingly is being compressed into a relatively short period immediately preceding death.

The authors studied health data on 10,000 individuals between 1992 and 2005 taken from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey. They found that in those years life expectancy increased by 0.7 years for the typical 65-year-old individual, disability-free life expectancy increased by 1.6 years, and disabled life expectancy fell by 0.9 years.

The findings have implications for the nation’s ongoing debate over how to rein in healthcare costs. “If morbidity is being compressed into the period just before death, the impacts of population aging are not as severe as if additional life involves many years of expensive care,” the authors write.

Although the improvements occurred across the population, they were not evenly distributed. Men aged 65 were living 9.2 years without disability at the beginning of the study, versus 10.9 years at the end, an increase of 18.4%. For women, the increase was 19% (8.4 years to 10 years). Whites saw their disability-free years grow by 17.7% (9 years to 10.6 years), while nonwhites experienced a 25.7% increase (7 to 8.8 years). The number of years living with a disability diminished correspondingly for each group.

In contrast to the trend in disabilities, the number of years living with disease increased among the study group, from 9.5 to 9.7. But the number of disease-free years grew as well, from 8.0 to 8.6.

The authors do not offer an explanation as to the reasons behind the compression of morbidity.