The UK study shows that even as life expectancy has increased over the past two decades, people have become increasingly healthier later in life. "With the exception of the year or two just before death, people are healthier than they used to be," David Cutler from the Harvard University, said.

"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 were 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 Cutler.

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 reported these findings in work with Mary Beth Landrum of Harvard Medical School and Kaushik Ghosh of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

To understand whether people are becoming healthier, Cutler first had to answer a question that, at least initially, seemed impossible to solve: How far are people from death? "There are two basic scenarios that people have proposed about the end of life," he said.

"The first argues that what medical science is doing is turning us into light bulbs – that is, we work well until suddenly we die. This is also called the rectangularization of the life curve, and what it says is that we're going to have a fairly high quality of life until the very end.

"The other idea says life is a series of strokes, and medical care has simply gotten better at saving us," he said. While researchers have tried to tackle the question of which model is more accurate, different studies have produced competing results.

One reason for the confusion, Cutler suggested that such efforts are simply looking at the wrong end of someone's life. By comparing that data with survey responses on how well people were able to care for themselves – whether they were able to cook, clean, bathe themselves, dress themselves, walk and manage money – Cutler was able to determine how healthy people were relative to how close or far away they were from dying.


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