Context: The population is aging and life expectancy is increasing, but whether morbidity and disability late in life also increase is unknown.
Objective: To examine whether the use of health care services, disability and cognitive function, and overall quality of life in the year before death among older adults has changed over time.
Design and setting: The 1986 and 1993 National Mortality Followback Surveys, which were probability samples of all deaths in the United States with response rates of next of kin of 90% and 88% for those aged 65 years and older.
Participants: Next of kin were asked to report the health status of a total of 9179 decedents who were 65 years and older in 1986 and 6735 in 1993, representing 1.5 and 1.6 million decedents aged 65 years and older.
Main outcome measures: Days of hospital or nursing home stays, number and length of disability in 5 activities of daily living, duration of impairment in 3 measures of cognitive function, and an overall sickness score among individuals aged 65 through 84 years and those aged 85 years and older.
Results: Women used significantly fewer hospital and nursing home services in the last year of life in 1993 vs 1986 (mean reduction, 3.3 nights for both age groups for hospital services; mean reduction 18.4 nights for nursing home for women aged 65-84 years and 42.3 nights for women > or =85 years). Men had no changes except those aged 85 years and older had a decline in nursing home nights of 32.6. The proportion of women aged 85 years and older with restriction of at least 2 activities of daily living decreased from 62.5% in 1986 to 52.1% in 1993 (P<.01), and those with normal cognitive function increased from 50.3% to 56.2% (P<.05). Their mean overall sickness score decreased and quality-of-life improved. Among women aged 65 through 84 years, the number with normal cognitive function increased and the mean sickness score decreased, but those with at least 2 activities of daily living impairments increased and the overall quality of life declined. A similar pattern of change was found in the oldest-old men except that cognitive function worsened. Most parameters for men aged 65 through 84 years did not change significantly.
Conclusions: Men and women at least 85 years old in the US experienced a better overall quality of life in the last year of life in 1993 than those in 1986. Most measures for men and women aged 65 through 84 years improved or did not change.