Longer lives are getting healthier too

Medical Minutes

Older adults are remaining healthier later in life

Life expectancy has increased significantly over the past two decades in the United States and more Americans than ever before are living well into their eighth and ninth decades of life. Now, a new study is showing that Americans are increasingly healthier later in life.

“With the exception of the year or two just before death, people are healthier than they used to be,” said study investigator David Cutler, who is with Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts. “Effectively, the period of time in which we’re in poor health is being compressed until just before the end of life. So where we used to see people who are very, very sick for the final six or seven years of their life, that’s now far less common. People are living to older ages and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones.”

The study results are based on data collected between 1991 and 2009 from nearly 90,000 individuals who responded to the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey (MCBS). Cutler said most of the current studies like this one measure health at different ages, and then use a model to estimate how long people have to live. However, he said the right way to do this type of research is to measure health backward from death, not forward. So, he and his team looked at when a person dies, then went back a year and measured their health, then back two years, three years and so on.

The researchers analyzed how well people were able to care for themselves. They looked at whether the individual was able to cook, clean, bathe themselves, dress themselves, walk and manage money. The researchers were then able to determine how healthy people were relative to how close or far away they were from dying.

Cutler said there seems to be a clear relationship between some conditions that are no longer as debilitating as they once were and areas of improvement in medicine.

“The most obvious is cardiovascular disease,” Cutler said. “There are many fewer heart attacks today than there used to be because people are now taking cholesterol-lowering drugs, and recovery is much better from heart attacks and strokes than it used to be.”

More evidence that chocolate may boost brain power

A growing body of scientific evidence is suggesting that eating chocolate on a daily basis may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Now, researchers have found that drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day may help keep brains healthy and even sharpen thinking skills. The findings are significant because they suggest that eating chocolate on a daily basis may be good for the brain.

The study involved 60 older adults. The average age of the participants was 73 and they drank two cups of hot cocoa every day for 30 days. They did not consume any other chocolate during the study. The volunteers were given tests of memory and thinking skills. The researchers also did ultrasound testing to measure the amount of blood flow to the brain during the tests.

“We’re learning more about blood flow in the brain and its effect on thinking skills,” said study author Dr. Farzaneh Sorond, who is with Harvard Medical School. “As different areas of the brain need more energy to complete their tasks, they also need greater blood flow. This relationship, called neurovascular coupling, may play an important role in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”

Of the 60 participants, 18 had impaired blood flow at the start of the study. The researchers found that those volunteers with impaired blood flow had an 8 percent improvement in the blood flow to the working areas of the brain by the end of the study. However, there was no improvement for those who started out with regular blood flow. The volunteers with impaired blood flow also improved their times on a test of working memory, with scores dropping from 167 seconds at the beginning of the study to 116 seconds at the end. There was no change in times for people with regular blood flow.

John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at medicalminutes@gmail.com.

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John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute.

  • Email: medicalminutes@gmail.com

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