MONDAY, July 28, 2014 (HealthDay News) --The more chronic medical conditions people have at retirement age, the shorter their life expectancy may be, a new study claims.
Since nearly four in five older Americans have multiple health issues, scientists at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore said the findings may help explain why gains in life expectancy are slowing in the United States.
"Living with multiple chronic diseases such as diabetes, kidney disease and heart failure is now the norm and not the exception in the United States," said lead author Eva DuGoff in a Hopkins news release. "The medical advances that have allowed sick people to live longer may not be able to keep up with the growing burden of chronic disease."
"It is becoming very clear that preventing the development of additional chronic conditions in the elderly could be the only way to continue to improve life expectancy," DuGoff added.
Life expectancy is rising faster in other developed nations than it is in the United States. To more closely examine this trend, the researchers analyzed data compiled on 1.4 million Medicare beneficiaries aged 67 and older enrolled as of Jan. 1, 2008.
For each additional chronic condition a person had, life expectancy was reduced by almost two years, according to the study published in the August issue of Medical Care. While the study found an association between chronic illnesses and life expectancy, it did not prove a cause-and-effect link.
Although the number of chronic conditions people have matters, specific diseases can also determine life expectancy, the researchers noted. For example, it's estimated that a 67-year-old with heart disease will live, on average, an additional 21 years. But a 67-year-old with Alzheimer's disease is only expected to live another 12 years.
"We tend to think about diseases in isolation. You have diabetes or you have heart failure. But many people have both, and then some," senior study author Gerard Anderson, a professor in the department of health policy and management at Hopkins, said in the news release.
"The balancing act needed to care for all of those conditions is complicated; more organ systems become involved, as do more physicians prescribing more medications," Anderson explained.
In the United States, 60 percent of people aged 67 and older have three or more of chronic diseases.
"We already knew that living with multiple chronic conditions affects an individual's quality of life, now we know the impact on quantity of life," DuGoff said. "The growing burden of chronic disease could erase decades of progress. We don't want to turn around and see that life expectancy gains have stopped or reversed."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides statistics on Americans' life expectancy.