More healthy years: Average person is living longer without disability

NEWCASTLE, United Kingdom — The window people have to live a happy and healthy life is getting bigger. A new study reveals the average person’s “healthspan” is going up, meaning they’re living for more years free of disability during old age.

A team from Newcastle University adds that even people with chronic health conditions are enjoying more years of healthy living before disability sets in later in life. They note that in recent decades, modern medicine has made incredible advances which allow people battling chronic illnesses to live longer. However, researchers wanted to see if these patients were actually enjoying a longer period of good health or simply struggling with their conditions for a longer length of time.

To find out, the team analyzed two major studies examining older adults over the age of 65 in the United Kingdom. The studies, the Cognitive Function and Aging Studies (CFAS I and II), interviewed 7,635 people between 1991 and 1993 and 7,762 people between 2008 and 2011. Researchers conducting CFAS I and II also followed up with the participants for two years after each interview.

Results show that the average years of disability-free life expectancy (DFLE) increased between 1991 and 2011. This held true for both healthy adults as well as people with chronic health conditions.

healthspan
By 2011, older people with most health conditions were living longer and spending a smaller proportion of remaining life with disability, than their counterparts in 1991. (CREDIT: Holly Bennett)

Brain health is actually on the decline

Over this period of time, men gained 4.6 years in life expectancy and enjoyed an additional 3.7 years living disability-free. Moreover, men with chronic conditions such as arthritis, coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes gained more years in DFLE. Men living with respiratory difficulties or those who survived a stroke saw the greatest increases in disability-free living during this time.

For women reaching age 65, the study finds life expectancy jumped by 2.1 years, with DFLE rising by nearly the same amount (2.0 years). Women dealing with chronic conditions also saw an increase in disability-free years however, researchers note older women experiencing cognitive impairment had concerning declines in health.

On average, women with cognitive impairment saw their life expectancy living with disabilities increase by 1.6 years. These patients did not see any improvement in the number of years they lived disability-free.

Although older men experiencing mental decline saw their DFLE increase by 1.4 years between 1991 and 2011, researchers note the number of years these men lived with disability also increased by roughly the same amount. Therefore, at age 65, the number of years people with cognitive impairment lived disability-free actually decreased over those 20 years.

“While these findings are mostly positive, we found an increase in the percentage of remaining years spent with disability for men and women with cognitive impairment. Given cognitive impairment was also the only long-term condition where prevalence decreased this is a cause for concern and requires further investigation,” the study authors conclude in a media release.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

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