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People are Living Longer and Healthier, Harvard Researcher Says

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Jul 30, 2013 04:51 AM EDT
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New study has found that exercise and diet can increase telomere length. (Photo : REUTERS/Andres Stapff)

According to researchers at the Harvard University, people aren't just living longer, but are also now living healthier. The latest study has found that in the past two decades, medical advancements have helped people stay healthy for long.

"With the exception of the year or two just before death, people are healthier than they used to be. 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," said David Cutler, Harvard University Professor and lead author of the study.

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Previous research from the World Health Organization claimed that people are living longer, healthier lives now than they did in the past. The global life expectancy increased from around 64 years in 1990 to about 70 years in 2011.

The data for the study came from the Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey (MCBS) that included about 90,000 men and women between 1991 and 2009. The data helped researchers assess the health of people as they aged.

A recent study had found that although life-expectancy in the U.S. increased in the past few years, health hasn't improved as people are suffering from chronic diseases due to poor lifestyles. Life expectancy in the U.S. is currently 79 years. Another recent study, published in JAMA, had found that among other developed countries, healthy life expectancy in the U.S. declined between 1990 and 2010 (the country went down from 14th position to 26th in this index) despite having high healthcare spending.

According to Cutler, researchers haven't been looking at the right kind of data to study life expectancy. There are two prevalent models that explain the end of life; one being modern medicine turning us into "light bulbs" because we function efficiently until our sudden deaths.

Another model, he said, is that modern medicine cures illnesses, but we aren't in good health. Essentially modern medicine tries to save us till it can, so we die bound to hospital beds.

The new study analyzes the data backwards; researchers first looked at how people died and then study their health one or two years before the event.

Next, the team will be looking at why some diseases have become less debilitating now than they were in the past. The present study was sponsored by the National Institute on Aging.

"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," he added, according to a press reslease. "The most obvious is cardiovascular disease - 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. A person who suffered a stroke used to be totally disabled, but now many will survive and live reasonable lives. People also rebound quite well from heart attacks."

According to researchers, people are more educated now and are motivated to stay healthy for long period of time.

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