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OP-ED: Are Health Spans Rising Along with Life Spans?

WASHINGTON – A new paper jointly released by The Concord Coalition and the Global Aging Institute (GAI) examines whether ongoing improvements in the health of the elderly could be an economic and fiscal gamechanger. The paper, which is the third in a quarterly series of issue briefs on the aging of America called The Shape of Things to Come

, concludes that there is room for optimism on the economic front, since better health at older ages will facilitate longer work lives. Unfortunately, the expectation that better health will result in lower health-care spending is likely to be disappointed.

“Improvements in the health of the elderly should be hoped for and welcomed for the large potential benefits to individual elders, their families, and the national economy,” said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of The Concord Coalition. “However, it is a fantasy to think that they can erase the cost of the coming age wave. Difficult choices will still be required.”

“Experts have long debated whether health spans will rise along with life spans as the population ages,” said Richard Jackson, president and founder of GAI. “While a final verdict is still out, some tentative conclusions are possible. The functional health of the elderly has been improving, and this should make it easier to extend work lives, one of the two things we know aging societies need to do. However, the underlying health of the elderly has not, which means controlling health-care costs, the other thing we know aging societies need to do, will remain challenging.”

Key findings of the issue brief:

When it comes to the health of the elderly, there is some good news and some bad news:

  • The good news is that rates of elderly disability have declined dramatically in the United States and many other developed countries over the past few decades, which should help to promote “productive aging.”
  • The bad news is that disability is not the same thing as morbidity. Even as rates of disability have fallen, the share of the elderly with serious chronic conditions, from diabetes to hypertension and heart disease, has been flat or rising.
  • While it seems reasonable to expect that falling rates of elderly disability will lead to lower health-care spending, it may be the high and rising volume of health-care services the elderly consume that is the very reason they have become less disabled.
  • Whatever happens to the health of the elderly, absent broader reform of the health-care financing and delivery system, spending is likely to remain on a steep upward trajectory.

Click here to read the whole paper, ” Are Health Spans Rising Along with Life Spans?”

The first issue brief in the series, “America’s Demographic Future,” can be found by clicking here, and the second issue brief, “The Case for Longer Work Lives,” can be found here.

Tune in to Concord’s upcoming podcast episode on Facing the Future (broadcast Wednesday) to hear and see Jackson and Bixby discuss the paper.

To view this release online, click here.

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The Concord Coalition is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to fiscal responsibility. Since 1992, Concord has worked to educate the public about the causes and consequences of the federal deficit and debt, and to develop realistic solutions for sustainable budgets. For more fiscal news and analysis, visit concordcoalition.org and follow us on Twitter: @ConcordC