The desire to live longer is not a terribly foreign concept. For centuries, crusaders, explorers, and scientists have sought ways to ensure longer life. With advances in technology and medicine, the elderly have extended their life spans, but are they suffering as a result of living past their time?

A new study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, indicates that life expectancy has increased over the past 20 years, while the health of those living longer has also improved. The study was carried out from 1991 and 2009, and included about 90,000 individuals, aged 65 and older, who responded to the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey.

Researchers found that, indeed, the life expectancy of the elderly has increased by two years. However, this extension of life was not met with the expected disabilities or illnesses that were once associated with the last six to eight years of an individual's life. These include chronic diseases like heart and kidney failure, or disabilities like bone weakness and breakage, as well as cognitive decline.

Researchers were able to measure how far individuals were from death. After taking survey answers into account, researchers measured each person's health backwards from their death. While such a measure may sound morbid, "most of our surveys measure health at different ages, and then use a model to estimate how long people have to live, but the right way to do this is to measure health backwards from death, not forwards," said David Cutler. Ph.D., leader of this study. He and his team were able to measure, using survey responses and health records, how far from death each person was and how their health was affected.

However, this study does not indicate that the elderly are not suffering from chronic diseases or disability, but rather, they are suffering for shorter periods of time. Disease prevalence is actually rising, according to this study. Heart disease affected about 26 percent of participants, and 18 percent of participants had a history of cancer — in other words, the prevalence of both health issues is increasing. Nevertheless, debilitating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease are decreasing in those who are not near the end of their lives, but can cause those closer to death to suffer.

In the study, disability was measured by how independent each individual reported being; factors like the ability to bathe, feed, and clothe themeselves were considered, as were abilities to manage money, walk unaided, and travel. In the eight years before death, researchers found that disabilities had declined by 25 percent, though disabilities affected up to 95 percent of individuals in their last year of life. This may indicate that while no one is yet promised to live forever, they can live a more fulfilled life as their death-related suffering and ailments are no longer extended too far beyond their time of death.

These findings suggest that not only are the elderly living longer, but they are also experiencing a better quality of life. Researchers also hypothesize that because of the advances in health care, people are more educated regarding their health and its maintenance. As a result of this study, there is much hope that life expectancy will continue to increase, as scientists will know when to start treating and screening for particularly debilitating diseases. "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," concluded Cutler.

Source: Cutler DM, Ghosh K, Landrum MB. Evidence for Significant Compression of Morbidity In the Elderly U.S. Population. National Institute on Aging. 2013.

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