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Changing how we see aging

Death By Numbers

What happens if we eliminated most diseases?

What if we eliminated the top diseases of older adults? Goodbye Cancer, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, Stroke, Influenza and Pneumonia, and chronic obstructive lung disease. Will we then live forever, as some have suggested?

The surprising answer is that curing all of these diseases will result in very little change in additional life. Of course, we can only do this statistically.

Kenneth Manton and his colleagues from Duke University eliminated one disease at a time in their statistical modeling. What they found is that if we eliminate all of these killer diseases overall we expect to see those over 87 years of age to live an addition 5.7 years for males (estimated for 1987) and 6.5 years for females. This is about the same improvement in life expectancy at 65 in the last 100 years in the USA (5.7 years.) If you are 65 years old today, you have a 50/50 chance of living an additional 5.7 years than if you were living in the 1900s. In the last hundred years, the great improvement in life expectancy is not amongst older adults, but among newborns and infants and have very little to do with clinical care at later ages.

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However, this is not the end of the story.

Most older adults suffer from not just one, but multiple health conditions. So if we assume that we can cure one disease, say cancer, we will still be faced—sooner rather than later—with another disabling disease that might kill us slower. And this is what happens.

Douglas G. Manuel with the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, Toronto, Canada, and his colleagues calculated what happens when they eliminated specific killer diseases from their data. They reported that by eliminating cancer they predicted that one fifth of the years of life gained would be spent in poor health—and increased cost. On the other hand, eliminating musculoskeletal conditions, would result in a year of good health for women and under half a year for men. And that is what we are finding across the world.

As life expectancy has increased, the number of healthy years lost to disability has also increased in most countries. Joshua Salomon from the Harvard School of Public Health and his colleagues found that although most countries have made substantial progress in reducing mortality over the past two decades, non-fatal disease and injury have not improved to the same degree.

Our progress in health outcomes is also slowing down in the US, especially diseases that we can control and especially for women. Nearly 20 years ago, the United States was closer to the middle of other industrialized countries, but countries like Ireland and South Korea improved sharply, leaving the United States behind.

In addition, across all industrialized countries, because we are living longer and living with diseases, the occurrence of chronic diseases has increased. Finding a cure should be matched with finding care. Our reliance on medical breakthroughs at the cost of statistical outcomes ignores the immediate need that we face. We need to think about finding care as much as finding a cure.

 © USA Copyrighted 2014 Mario D. Garrett

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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