We're Getting Healthier--in Some Ways

Although the U.S. is suffering an epidemic of obesity, at the same time, we’re healthier in some ways than we used to be, new research shows.

Experts from the National Bureau of Economic Research; Harvard; and the University of Massachusetts analyzed data from government-sponsored health surveys over the last three decades. They measured how the quality-adjusted life expectancy (QALE) of Americans has changed over time.

"What we're talking about in this study is not simply life expectancy, but quality-adjusted life expectancy," said Susan Stewart of the National Bureau of Economic Researchers. "Many studies have measured this in different ways, but this is really the first time we've been able to measure it in the entire U.S. population using such a rich measure over a long period."

The findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health, indicated that Americans are healthier than ever. The statistics from the studies showed that people are living longer and reporting fewer disease symptoms and incidences of trouble walking or standing. This was true, the researchers said, of blacks, whites, men and women.

But there were some significant issues as well. The non-elderly showed increased problems with walking, and anxiety increased among young and middle-aged people beginning in 2001.

"Ironically, many of the clearest gains have come at older ages, where people were once disabled by things like vision problems and cardiovascular disease," said researcher David Cutler, of Harvard. "Those conditions today are far more treatable than they were in the past, so what we're left with at the very oldest ages are things like Alzheimer's and dementia, while at younger ages we're seeing problems that appear to be related to a sedentary lifestyle." "Some of the improvements are almost certainly the result of health care improvements," he continued. "There are a number of conditions, such as heart disease, that used to be very, very impairing. It used to be that after a severe heart attack, people would essentially be bed-ridden, or they would wind up in nursing homes. We're not seeing that very much anymore." Cutler said the team’s analysis will become even more significant in years to come because of the Affordable Health Care Act, which researchers can examine for its effect on the state of health in the country. 
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