In the last two decades, people have not only been living longer but they also have been staying much healthier later in life, according to a new study.
Previously, researchers have found that very poor health usually hits people in the last several years of life. But now, thanks in large part to medical advances, poor health is more likely to occur only just before death.
"With the exception of the year or two just before death, people are healthier than they used to be," said David Cutler, the Harvard University Professor who conducted the study, in a press release. "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’s findings were derived from data collected from nearly 90,000 people between 1991 and 2009. He studied how well people were able to care for themselves as they grew older and then examined when they died. From this he was able to assess the health of people relative to how close or far away they were from dying.
Going forward, Cutler hopes to unravel the reasons why some health conditions are less debilitating now than in the past. Part of the change, he said, will certainly be attributed to increased access and improvements to medical care. But there are a variety of other factors that make it hard to fully answer the question, he added.
"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 in a press release. "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."
What's more, he said, as standards of care have improved, so too has the public's knowledge of how to stay healthy.
"People are much better educated about their health now," Cutler said in a press release. "People are taking steps to help prevent long-term cognitive decline. We don't have any way yet to slow down something like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, but there is a lot we can do for other health problems."
Studies show that dramatic gains in life expectancy show no signs of slowing down. Countries at the top end of the life expectancy scale include Switzerland, Australia and Japan.