Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Public Health and BioMed Central.

Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The effect of different public health interventions on longevity, morbidity, and years of healthy life

Paula Diehr12*, Ann Derleth3, Liming Cai4 and Anne B Newman56

Author Affiliations

1 Departments of Biostatistics, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

2 Department of Health Services, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

3 Veterans Administration Center for Excellence in Research on the Older Adult, Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle, WA, USA

4 Office of Analysis, Epidemiology, and Health Promotion, National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hyattsville, Md. USA

5 Department of Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, USA

6 Department of Epidemiology, Graduate School of Public Health, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Public Health 2007, 7:52  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-7-52

Published: 5 April 2007



Choosing cost-effective strategies for improving the health of the public is difficult because the relative effects of different types of interventions are not well understood. The benefits of one-shot interventions may be different from the benefits of interventions that permanently change the probability of getting sick, recovering, or dying. Here, we compare the benefits of such types of public health interventions.


We used multi-state life table methods to estimate the impact of five types of interventions on mortality, morbidity (years of life in fair or poor health), and years of healthy life (years in excellent, very good, or good health).


A one-shot intervention that makes all the sick persons healthy at baseline would increase life expectancy by 3 months and increase years of healthy life by 6 months, in a cohort beginning at age 65. An equivalent amount of improvement can be obtained from an intervention that either decreases the probability of getting sick each year by 12%, increases the probability of a sick person recovering by 16%, decreases the probability that a sick person dies by 15%, or decreases the probability that a healthy person dies by 14%. Interventions aimed at keeping persons healthy increased longevity and years of healthy life, while decreasing morbidity and medical expenditures. Interventions focused on preventing mortality had a greater effect on longevity, but had higher future morbidity and medical expenditures. Results differed for older and younger cohorts and depended on the value to society of an additional year of sick life.


Interventions that promote health and prevent disease performed well, but other types of intervention were sometimes better. The value to society of interventions that increase longevity but also increase morbidity needs further research. More comprehensive screening and treatment of new Medicare enrollees might improve their health and longevity without increasing future medical expenditures.