NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Economic Value of Longer Lives

April 26, 2000

Two University of Chicago economists have calculated the economic value of the increase in life expectancy in the U.S. over the past several decades.

Using a mathematical model to calculate the change in the value of life caused by reductions in mortality for various age groups, they estimate that:

  • Improvements in life expectancy alone -- ignoring the benefits of improved quality of life associated with decreased morbidity -- added about $2.8 trillion per year (in 1992 dollars) to national wealth between 1970 and 1990.
  • About $1.5 trillion of the overall $2.8 trillion annual increase was due to the reduction in mortality from heart disease -- an area in which medical advances in both prevention and acute care have been significant.
  • For purposes of comparison, America's gross domestic product in 1980 -- the midpoint of the period -- was about $4.6 trillion in 1992 dollars.

The growth in expenditures for medical research and improved health care that led to increased longevity have been small relative to the increases in the value of life --on the order of 15 percent. Furthermore, the returns to improvements in health escalate as the population gets larger, income increases, the average health of the population improves and the population gets closer to the predictable age of the onset of disease.

Indeed, they estimate the growth and aging of the population will by themselves raise the economic return to improvements in the treatment of many diseases by almost 50 percent between 1990 and 2030. Meanwhile, likely increases in real incomes and life expectancy will add at least that much again to the gains.

Source: Kevin M. Murphy and Robert Topel (University of Chicago), "Medical Research: What's It Worth?" Milken Institute Review, First Quarter 2000, Milken Institute, 1250 4th Street, Santa Monica, Calif. 90401, (310) 998-2600.


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