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The New Economics of Health for Baby Boomers

Rising Health Care Costs Are Only Part of the Problems Older Americans Face

WebMD Health News

Sept. 29, 2004 -- Are rising health care costs among the elderly really a bad thing? Does where you live determine the type of medical care you receive after you retire? Why do aging women get sicker while aging men die faster?

Those are just some of the questions experts are trying to answer as the first wave of Baby Boomers approaches retirement age in 2011. Rather than rely on their families to care for them in retirement, researchers say Baby Boomers will face a new set of challenges in order to stay healthy longer.

"They have fewer children to care for them, and more of their children are divorced and living at great distances," says Richard Suzman, PhD, associate director of the behavioral and social research program at the National Institute on Aging (NIA). "People will have to maintain their health for longer periods of their life in order to be able to function effectively."

Suzman moderated a briefing in New York City this week sponsored by the NIA on the health and economic challenges of an aging population.

Researchers say that major changes in the way people make decisions about their personal health and financial future as well as public policy will make a critical difference in their health and well-being later in life.

Rising Health Care Costs: A Good Thing?

One of the most common complaints about the health care system is the rising cost of medical care, especially among older adults.

But health economist David Culter, PhD, of Harvard University in Boston, says the real question is whether we're getting a better value for the money we spend on health care. He says current health technologies, on average, return $4 in approximate life value for every medical dollar spent.

"Too often we think just about the cost and not what it's worth to us," says Culter, who spoke at the briefing.

In 1950, Cutler says the cost of treating a heart attack was virtually nothing because the only available treatment was bed rest for six months, and as a result the outlook for heart attack survivors was bleak. Today, the cost of treating a heart attack with drugs to restore blood flow and surgery to repair clogged arteries is nearly $30,000 for a 45-year-old.

As a result of those expensive, but effective treatments, the proportion of people who die within three months of a heart attack has fallen by three-fourths since the 1950s.

"The single biggest thing that has happened over time in terms of mortality is that cardiovascular deaths have fallen by about two-thirds since 1950. [This was] right at a time when people were saying 'this is the biggest killer and we can't do anything about it' and it turns out we can do quite a bit," says Cutler.

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