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Study: No extra cost for long, healthy life

By Wire services
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2003

More "golden years" do not cost the health care system more: Whether people are healthy at age 70 and live independently for many more years or are sickly and die sooner, their medical costs are about the same, federal researchers say.

The findings have big implications for taxpayers, because they suggest that the outlook for the Medicare program as America's baby boomers grow old is not as dire as some policymakers feared.

Given projections saying the baby boom generation will bankrupt the Medicare trust fund in about 25 years, politicians and economists have wondered whether the increasing longevity of healthier senior citizens would increase or reduce Medicare spending.

The answer is neither, say researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics. They found medical expenses from age 70 until death averaged $140,700, with little difference between active, long-lived senior citizens and disabled ones - except for those already in a nursing home.

"The basic lesson of our study is that although healthy people live longer, they don't cost more in the long run," said Jim Lubitz, acting chief of the Aging Studies Branch in the statistics center's Office of Analysis, Epidemiology and Health Promotion. "Improving health should be the overall goal of our health care policy, but it's not going to save the Medicare system."

Sandra Decker, a researcher at the International Longevity Center-USA, said Medicare costs will rise because of the sheer number of beneficiaries, not their longer life span.

"It means, yes, we'll spend more on Medicare, but maybe not as much more as we thought," she said.

Lubitz said the study should give a boost to efforts by government and doctors to encourage people to improve their health by getting more exercise, eating better and not smoking.

The study is reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine.

Lubitz and colleagues, using Medicare and other billing records and interviews about health status from 16,964 Medicare beneficiaries from 1992-98, used complex statistical calculations to determine average longevity and end-of-life costs.

They found someone healthy and mobile at age 70 could expect to live 14.3 more years and accumulate about $136,000 in medical costs, in 1998 dollars, over those years. Someone with at least one limitation in daily activities, such as not being able to bathe or use the toilet unassisted, could be expected to live 11.6 years more, with cumulative medical expenses of about $145,000.

Average life expectancy in this country hit a record 77.2 years in 2001, and by 2030, the number of Americans 65 or older will reach 71-million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Exercise shows many benefits for older women

Moderate exercise, such as brisk walking 30 minutes a day, can reduce a woman's risk of developing breast cancer by almost 20 percent, according to new research.

What's more, it appears that it's never too late to start: Sedentary postmenopausal women who take up exercise will see the benefits almost immediately.

"Moderate-intensity physical activities, such as walking, biking outdoors or easy swimming, when initiated later in life, can reduce the risk of breast cancer," said Dr. Anne McTiernan, director of prevention at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The new research shows that the risk for women who were active at age 18, 35 or 50 fell by about 14 percent. But exercising in the postmenopausal years seems to provide even more benefits, a risk reduction of 18 percent.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, are derived from the Women's Health Initiative, a massive research project involving almost 75,000 women between the ages of 50 and 79.

Herbal tea warning

WASHINGTON - The Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers not to drink teas brewed from the herb star anise, as it investigates reports of people, including 15 infants, suffering seizures after ingesting them.

Star anise tea sometimes is used as a folk remedy for infants with colic, but the FDA said there's no scientific evidence that it treats any ailment. Consumers shouldn't brew it, the FDA said, especially until the seizure question is cleared up.


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