Longer Lives Mask Americans' Rising Morbidity

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You’d think that with improved technology, life-saving prescription drugs and amazing advances in medical care, Americans would be living longer. That’s true to a point, but new data from the Journal of Gerontology shows that a 20-year-old can expect to live one less healthy year over his or her lifespan than a 20-year-old did just 10 years ago. What’s behind the numbers on “average morbidity”?

The Journal looked at some key demographics numbers – chief among them the propensity of people reaching a certain age to live much longer. For example, the Journal notes that the chances of a 65-year-old surviving to age 85 has grown from 20% to 40%.

It’s only natural to surmise that the “increased probability” of living longer is due to Americans' healthier lifestyles, but that’s not necessarily so. According to study data from a research group at the University of Southern California, “morbidity” – what medical experts define as the period of life spent dealing with serious disease—is actually on the rise.

Eileen Crimmins, AARP chair in gerontology at the University of Southern California, says it’s because we’re not as healthy as we think.  “We have always assumed that each generation will be healthier and longer lived than the prior one,” Crimmins says. “However, the compression of morbidity may be as illusory as immortality.”

The data from the USC researchers show that the average number of healthy years enjoyed by Americans has actually declined since 1998. That means we may be living longer, but we’re not escaping serious diseases, especially the "big three" – cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.

The USC study points to a few key statistics that tell us more about our relative health and illness later in life:

  • A 20-year-old male in 1998 could expect to live another 45 years without at least one of the leading causes of death: cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes. That number fell to 43.8 years in 2006, researchers report.
  • A 20-year-old female could expect to live another 48 years of life without serious disease – down from 49.2 year in 1998.

Basic mobility is trending downward, too, the USC study reports:

  • A 20-year-old today can expect to spend 5.8 years over the rest of his life without basic mobility, compared to 3.8 years a decade ago — an additional two years unable to walk up ten steps or sit for two hours.
  • A female 20-year-old can expect 9.8 years without mobility, compared to 7.3 years a decade ago.

Consequently, society hasn’t actually fought off disease – it’s just come up with breakthroughs that enable us to live longer while dealing with these serious diseases.

“There is substantial evidence that we have done little to date to eliminate or delay disease while we have prevented death from diseases,” Crimmins explained. “At the same time, there have been substantial increases in the incidences of certain chronic diseases, specifically, diabetes.”

Study researchers found that diabetes was the fastest-growing of the major diseases (followed by cardiovascular disease). Diabetes rose "significantly" among men and women over 30.

For what’s worth  - and it would seem to be worth a lot – Americans aren’t growing healthier from generation to generation, although we are living longer. The conundrum could well become one of the biggest quality of life issues heading into the new decade.

Hopefully Americans can put down their Twinkies long enough to start paying attention.

Source: Crimmins and Beltrán-Sánchez. “Mortality and Morbidity Trends: Is There Compression of Morbidity?” Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences: 2010.

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