Thinking Healthspan: Should Living Longer Still Be Our Goal?

Healthspan is harder to define than the purely quantitative lifespan, but a basic definition of the term is the period of life you live free from serious disease. Knowing this, I’d like to share with you a few questions that inspired the writing of this article. What good is a longer lifespan without an equal healthspan? In other words, is it even worth living to 100 if you spend the last 20 years of your life in a nursing home, bed ridden, and in constant pain? How can living for over a century be considered a “success” if you can’t even remember the names and faces of your loved ones? 

While these questions might make you uncomfortable, as most dealing with our inevitable demise do, they’re important ones. Because the growing void between lifespan – how long you live-  and healthspan – how well you live – is a disturbing reality for most Americans.  

When it comes to the health and longevity of human beings, today is unequivocally the best time to live in history. It was only one century ago when between 1918 -1919 the flu killed 30 million to 50 million people worldwide . Today that number is down to 250,000. In 1800, 43% of the world’s newborns died before their 5th birthday while in 2018 4.3% of families lose a child in the first half decade and under 1% in modernized countries like France, England, and Sweden. 

Because of momentous advances in medicine and healthcare, the average American can now expect to live to almost 80 years old. This is a miraculous achievement for mankind; however, as we keep pushing the lifespan of humans higher we’ve neglected to make sure life is still able to be lived. But not just lived in the sense of falling asleep at night and waking up in the morning. I mean truly experiencing life with happiness and purpose, free from debilitating illnesses that cripple joy itself.

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

According to Washington University in Saint Louis, the current void for Americans between healthspan and lifespan is a massive 16 years, and 7 out of the top 10 causes of death commence at or before the retirement age of 65.

In other words, after working your entire life, saving every extra penny, and expecting well-earned decades of relaxation – reality is much different. Instead, disease and sickness plague your existence while medical bills keep you from buying your dream boat and traveling the world. One can’t help but ask themselves if this is really living at all?

Source: Washington University in St. Louis

Is It Time to Start Thinking About Healthspan Over Lifespan?

University of Illinois at Chicago epidemiologist S. Jay Olshansky’s shares my sentiment. In a new article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association he makes the case for why we should celebrate the gains in lifespan followed with a swift change in focus to healthspan.

He writes, “With declining early-age mortality and a shift in the age distribution of death, the population of the United States, and much of humanity in general, achieved exactly what was desired: the first longevity revolution. The 30-year increase in life expectancy at birth in the past 100 years is one of humanity’s greatest achievements.”

However, he believes at this point continuing the relentless pursuit of a longer life could reach a point of diminishing returns.

“Because the biological processes of aging force human bodies to become ever more susceptible to fatal and disabling conditions, unwanted health conditions emerge in the [Healthspan/Lifespan Gap] not so much because of how life has been lived (although harmful lifestyles can accelerate their emergence and progression) but because of how long life has already been lived. Time becomes the greatest challenge.”

Since the body becomes more prone to disease as we age, a phenomenon known as competing risks comes into play.

This is when the risk of death from a disease decreases, the risk of death from other diseases increases or becomes even more threatening.

For example, finding a cure for cancer may cause an unintended increase in the prevalence of Alzheimer disease.

Simply put, it’s going to be exponentially harder to extend the average lifespan like we have in the past century.

Olshansky argues we should take these gains and maximize this new time we have.

He finishes his piece, “The inescapable conclusion from these observations is that life extension should no longer be the primary goal of medicine when applied to people older than 65 years of age. The principal outcome and most important metric of success should be the extension of healthspan.”

We would love to hear your own thoughts on healthspan vs lifespan.

Simply leave a comment in the comments section below to share with us how you balance the two in your own daily lifestyle.

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