Progress Gained in Life Expectancy and Disability-Free Years

Disability-free years and life expectancy increased significantly from 1992 to 2008.

Findings from a recent study suggest that disability-free years and life expectancy are increasing due to increased cardiovascular health and decreased vision problems.

"This suggests, for the typical person, there really is an act beyond work -- that once you reach age 65, you can likely look forward to years of healthy activity," said study co-author David Cutler, AB, PhD. "So this is good news for the vast bulk of people who can now look forward to healthier, disability free life, but it's also good news for medical care because it demonstrates the value of medical spending."

In the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the researchers consulted the Medicare Current Beneficiary survey that assesses the difficulties patients have with day-to-day tasks. Researchers then combined those results with life expectancy data from National Vital Statistics.

Researchers found that in 1992, the life expectancy of an average 65-year old was 17.5 years and 8.9 of those years were disability free. They found that in 2008, the life expectancy of an average 65-year old was 18.8 years, with 10.7 of those years disability free.

"There has been an incredibly dramatic decline in deaths and disabilities from heart disease and heart failure," Dr Cutler said. "Some of it is the result of people smoking less, and better diet, but we estimate that as much as half of the improvement is because of medical care, especially statin drug treatment, which is both preventing heart attacks and improving people's recovery."

For vision specifically, cataract surgery has improved greatly.

"In the past, cataract surgery was very lengthy and technically difficult," Dr Cutler said. "That same surgery today can be done in an outpatient setting, so that complications and disability are significantly ameliorated."

However, researchers note that dementia, neuro-degenerative diseases, and chronic-disabling conditions are still a concern. While life expectancy is increasing, researchers wonder if this is true across all socio-economic groups and geographic regions.

Investigators said they hope the study challenges the notion that increasing age means health problems and disabilities.

"It used to be that when you turn 70, your occupation became managing your health," Dr Cutler concluded. "Now you can increasingly just live your life."