Life expectancy soared over the last part of the 20th century as treatments for major diseases improved and infectious diseases were quelled by vaccines and better treatment. The most recent data, however, hint that life expectancy is no longer growing. And, according to a new study, we may spend more years sick than we did even a decade ago.
In a fascinating paper published last week in the Journal of Gerontology, noted gerontologist Eileen Crimmins and her colleague Hiram Beltran-Sanchez, both of the University of Southern California, suggest that the goal of a long life marked by mostly healthy years may not be possible for most of humanity.
According to the analysis, the average age of morbidity -- which is defined as the period of life spent with serious illness and lack of functional mobility -- has increased in the last two decades. For example, a 20-year-old man in 1998 could be expected to live an additional 45 years without at least one of these diseases: heart disease, cancer or diabetes. But that number fell to 43.8 in 2006. For women, the expected years of life without a major, serious disease fell from 49.2 years to 48 years over the last decade.
The study also found that the number of people who report a lack of mobility, such as not being able to walk up steps or walk a quarter mile, has increased.
"There is substantial evidence that we have done little to date to eliminate or delay disease or the physiological changes that are linked to age," the authors wrote.
They note that the age of a first heart attack did not change from the 1960s to the 1990s. Some types of cancers have increased and diabetes rates have soared.
"Substantial strides have been made in dealing with the consequences of disease," they wrote, noting that people live longer with serious illness. But even life expectancy increases may be nearing an end, they wrote.
"We have always assumed that each generation will be healthier and longer lived than the prior one," they said. "The growing problem of lifelong obesity and increases in hypertension and high cholesterol among cohorts reaching old age are a sign that health may not be improving with each generation. We do not appear to be moving to a world where we die without experiencing disease, functioning loss, and disability."