How Are They Connected?

In 1919, the average life expectancy for people born in the U.S. was about 56 years. Today that has risen to almost 79 years.

Health has many dimensions. 

We all want to live longer, but many of us have not added that we want to live longer and be healthier.

Lifespan equals the duration of existence in your body.  Healthspan measures healthy life expectancy. 

Healthspan is the period of life spent in good health, free from chronic diseases and the challenges of aging. It is not merely the absence of disease,  but health is the state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being.   How healthy will you be during your life? 

This leads us to conversations about the prevention of age-related diseases and healthy choices.

Many of us have heard of lifespan, but do we know the importance of healthspan? If one is past their healthspan, that means they are chronically sick, typically with a degenerating condition. 

Unlike the average lifespan, which for Americans is roughly 79 years young, we don’t have a marker for the average healthspan. Yet!

The Healthspan-lifespan Gap

The world population has tripled, from 2.9 billion in 1950 to 7.8 billion in 2020. The average life expectancy…a benchmark of health—has risen from 47 to 73 years of age in the past seven decades. 

Understanding how we age and what we can do to promote healthy aging is the key to building on our healthspan. Once thought unavoidable, consequences of aging are now considered preventable. 

People measure health like beauty. One person may feel healthy if their doctor says their vital signs are normal and they are able to take care of themselves. While others may feel unhealthy at the same level if they had to give up or restrict some enjoyable activity, they can’t do the same as they used to.

Some feel the greatest human accomplishment of the past century was the remarkable increase in life expectancy. In a century, the world changed considerably from having almost no countries with a life expectancy of more than 50 years to having many countries with a life expectancy of 80 years.

For most of the last century, social policy focused on increasing life expectancy in the population; but in recent decades, policy and research are increasingly focused on the potential of increasing a healthy life or what they are now calling healthspan.

The good news is that being aware of this healthspan vs. lifespan gap means we can work on finding ways to treat the risk factors for all chronic diseases; while trying to improve healthspan, it would be more advantageous to treat the underlying factors of aging rather than treating symptoms of each chronic condition at a time.

Looking at the root causes of disease and making different choices to prevent rather than treat disease makes more sense and seems like a better option going forward now that we know what we know. 

When we know better, we can do better.

These days death is generally the result of chronic conditions, which develop over a long lifespan, and a reduction in death rates among people who have chronic disease or disability means that more people with disease and disabilities survive longer. 

There were initially two opposing views on what would happen to a population’s health and healthspan with life expectancy increases at older ages—one focused on the failure of success—noting that keeping unhealthy people alive could cause the health of the population to deteriorate (Gruenberg, 1977).

Older populations, in particular, are growing. According to the National Center for Health, Statistics, 65-year-olds can expect to live another 19 years on average, five more than in 1950. As baby boomers age, the number of U.S. adults over 65 is expected to more than double by 2060, outnumbering children for the first time, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

As progress on multiple fronts has made it possible for many people to live longer, interest has grown in how to age well: preserving physical and mental health to maximize the quality of life as we age.

Our current healthcare model is actually all about treating the symptoms of disease and prolonging life, not about looking at the body as a whole by finding and treating the root cause or preventing disease in the first place.

We need to acknowledge that there is much that can be done to improve lifespan and healthspan in the United States that does not require scientific discovery. Health is determined by social conditions as well as physical conditions. Risky habits and health behaviors lack knowledge and access to medical care, and poor life circumstances may account for up to half of the premature mortality rates.

The causes of the differences between the United States and other countries and between socioeconomic groups in the United States are not unknown; the roots are in behaviors, social conditions, and policies (Crimmins et al., 2011; Woolf & Aron, 2013). Americans behave relatively poorly in terms of smoking, eating, exercise or movement, inappropriate use of drugs, and violence. 

Many of our health policies do not help build healthy minds and bodies in the children who are our future. We need to focus more of our efforts on prevention to improve health, increase life expectancy, and remove social differences through improved habits and behavior that would lead to increased life expectancy and health expectancy and allow us to reach our current scientific potential at the same time that we use science to improve that potential.

How do you increase healthspan?

Giving yourself more healthy years to live your life boils down to doing what it takes to prevent chronic disease and manage health conditions you may already have.

While aging itself is a risk factor for debilitating conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory illness, musculoskeletal diseases, and neurological and cognitive disorders, your behaviors, no matter what your age, play a powerful role in improving your risk.

Research on lifestyle modifications has shown how powerful changing your habits can be. 

If you smoke and quit, you can reduce your risk of dying early by as much as 36 percent, no matter how old you are when you stop, according to a systematic review in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Walking, riding your bike, or doing other types of workouts for 30 minutes regularly can decrease your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure.

We now know that life expectancy is a modifiable variable that will likely be approached with the prevention of chronic diseases of aging.

Healthspan is not one metric but a compilation of functional measures involving different organs and distinct disease mechanisms that may differ from person to person. 

It is likely that we will look back on the first half of the 21st century in healthcare as the age of aging. The world is getting older, and the numbers are staggering – up to 20% of the globe will be over 60 years in the near future, and healthcare costs are on the rise. 

Chronic diseases of aging are increasing and are inflicting untold costs on human quality of life, and there is a growing recognition that solutions must be found to keep people healthy longer.

Certainly, more studies are needed to better define the healthspan concept and to identify the best metrics for each person.  Finding ways to increase healthspan is indeed a unique opportunity to help people enjoy longer, healthier lives.

A new study suggests…Happiness may be the best medicine. Happy people live longer.

Grateful happy people tend to live longer and healthier lives than those who are constantly down in the dumps.

Women in their 50s who reported enjoying their lives had a projected life expectancy of nearly 37 more years, compared with just 31 years in those who felt depressed and unhappy in their lives, according to researchers with University College London.

The same was true for men in their 50s — guys who were happy had a life expectancy of 33 more years, compared with about 27 years for men who were miserable.

Happier men and women also tended to age more gracefully and enjoy more years free from disability or chronic disease.

People with a more positive outlook not only added more years to their life but also tended to enjoy better health.

However, there’s no guarantee that changing your outlook will lengthen your healthy life span.

It could be that the same genetic traits and habits that produce people who are generally happy, optimistic, and upbeat also maybe programs their bodies to live longer and healthier.

There are no clear answers on the correlation between happiness and health span, yet it makes sense that people with a good outlook on life that are happy have more to live for and see the positive can manage stress better and enjoy the pleasures in life. 

What it all comes down to are your thoughts and mindset that guide how your life will go. No one ever said life was easy.  No matter what happens in life, the choice is ultimately yours.