The federal government subsidizes basic and applied research on both the quality of life and the length of life. An example of research on quality is the efforts to find implantable artificial kidneys that can replace dialysis for persons with severe kidney disease since dialysis is a limited and very confining procedure. Research into finding cures for breast and prostate cancers exemplifies research on extending the length of life. It might seem clear that research on extending the lives of frail persons over say age 80 does not produce much value to these persons or to society, but economic analysis of the “value of life” shows that this conclusion is far from obvious.
The main criterion used to measure benefits from all kinds of medical advances is how much individuals affected by these advances, and society as a whole, would be willing to pay for them. Clearly, reducing the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, or finding drug substitutes for dialysis, would add great value to individuals who would have been victimized by Alzheimer’s or would have been on dialysis. As Posner indicates, however, this does not necessarily imply that putting lots of time and money into developing ways to extend the lives of old people is worthwhile, particularly those who are frail.
(photo credit: Elliott Brown)