As baby boomers age and concern grows about the viability of Medicare, a Brigham Young University professor has found that, with regard to overall health care costs incurred after age 65, dying older is cheaper.
H. Dennis Tolley, BYU professor of statistics, co-authored an article in Friday's issue of the prestigious journal Science with six other researchers that suggests improved medical technology could eventually lower total health care costs and even boost the economy.
"Most people become eligible for Medicare when they turn 65. From that point, a person who lives to be 90 will incur less overall health care costs than a person who lives to be 75, even though the first person lived 15 years longer," says Tolley.
Tolley says he has yet to reach firm conclusions as to why living longer costs less in terms of health care, but notes other research that suggests lower health maintenance costs for older people may be due to those persons avoiding the early risk of many chronic diseases.
In addition to that paradoxical finding, Tolley and his colleagues explain how improved technology, which many believe costs so much that it absorbs any savings resulting from better health, could eventually lower overall health care costs.
"When technologies for a particular disease are in their intermediate stage of development, they often do cost more than traditional treatments," he says. "But once technologies reach an advanced stage, they save money. Look at cataract surgery --nowadays it's no big deal, but back in 1970 it was so serious they had to sandbag your head for a week."
Based on their research, Tolley and his colleagues suggest worries about Medicare's future may be overblown. For example, official predictions don't take into account the improving health of the elderly population, Tolley says.
"Medicare predictions take recent years' costs and project them over the next 10 years," he says. "But right now we are in an era where the maximum number of ex-smokers are turning 65 and entering Medicare eligibility. That number will go down as generations more attendant to their health enter the Medicare age bracket."
And a healthier population will miss less time from work and need less attention from family caretakers, thus boosting worker productivity, the authors say.
Tolley, whose research specialty at BYU is health care cost containment, particularly among seniors, characterizes his article as a synthesis of existing research combined with new findings that should serve as a call for investment into biotechnology research.
"Dealing with health care costs is one of society's most salient issues as we head into the 21st century," he says.
Tolley's co-authors are: Herbert Pardes, Columbia University; Kenneth G. Manton, Duke University; Eric S. Lander, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Arthur D. Ullian, Task Force on Science, Health Care and the Economy; and Hans Palmer, Pomona College.
Contact: H. Dennis Tolley, 378-6668
Writer: Quinn Warnick