Old Age Is More Comfortable Than It Used to Be, Research Says

A Harvard researcher is out to prove that our end of life years could be better than expected.

Old age Image via Shutterstock.

Old age Image via Shutterstock.

Old age might not be as bad as you’ve been imagining it in your head. New research from Medicare, Harvard Medical School, and Harvard’s Applied Economics department indicates that as life expectancy increases, people have become increasingly healthier later in life.

In a Harvard report, David Cutler, a professor of Applied Economics at Harvard and a leader in this new research, explained why people may see better health in the few years before they die:

“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.”

Cutler and his colleagues have been studying data collected between 1991 and 2009 through the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey, which includes nearly 90,000 Americans. Through this data, they have determined that the common perception of life as a rectangular entity, where we live well health-wise until we suddenly die, is not correct.

However, another common theory on life does not explain Cutler’s research either, according to Harvard’s report. The second theory, which stipulates that life may be a series of strokes, says that medical care has gotten better at saving us, so we can live longer only because we’re preventing death. This theory says that our end years will not be good, and they will be expensive, too.

Cutler’s research, which was co-sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, is good news for many Americans who fear death, and it depicts life as an ebb and flow of health concerns spread throughout the years. According to the Harvard report, some medical conditions have been proven to be less debilitating now than they used to be in Cutler’s research, a truth which can be tied to better treatment and improvements in care, but also to a number of other factors that Cutler hopes to research further.

“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,” Cutler said in the report. “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. People also rebound quite well from heart attacks.”

Plus, Cutler says, people are better educated about health now, and although Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are still unpreventable, technology has done much to make old age more comfortable than it used to be.