Old age. There are two ways to get there. The most common path is a gradual decline in overall physical and mental health. Or, the road less traveled — the path to healthy aging. This is the kind of old age where you’re enjoying life right up to the last moment.
Living into your 80s and 90s is not uncommon. For some people this is not good news. One survey found that 65.3% of adults did not want to live past 85 years old. Why? Because living longer was associated with frailty. But life doesn’t have to end that way. Your lifespan can improve in years and quality if healthspan, or the number of years spent in good health, is optimized.
How is healthspan measured?
Healthy Life Expectancy, also known as health-adjusted life expectancy (HALE), is used by researchers who want to assess the quality of life in populations. They look at disability and health to determine the number of years one can expect to live in good health. Poor health may or may not affect life expectancy, but it can shave years of healthy life off our healthspan.
Even though we are living longer, we’re lagging when it comes to living healthier longer. One study found that, globally, life expectancy at birth increased by 7.4 years between 1990 to 2017. But, in most countries assessed in the analysis, the increase in HALE was smaller than increases in overall life expectancy. Another study looked at 187 countries and found that as life expectancy has increased, the number of years lost to disability has also increased.
How do you improve healthspan?
Research on lifestyle changes has shown changing your habits can have a huge impact on healthspan. If you quit smoking, you can reduce your risk of dying early by as much as 36%, no matter how old you are when you stop. Walking or other regular workouts can decrease your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. And it’s never too late to start.
Diet can also increase your healthspan. A study looking at the relationship between fruit and vegetable intake and heart disease, cancer, and early death found that the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
Tweaking healthspan in the lab
Scientists are discovering ways to manipulate, or even reverse, some of the common physiological signs of aging. In the not-too-distant future, there may be an arsenal of options available from dietary supplements to drugs designed to delay or prevent certain aspects of aging.
“The research community is rapidly developing a proper understanding of the metabolic pathways involved in cellular aging,” explains Dr. Greg Bailey, the CEO of Juvenescence, a biotech longevity company. “I believe that the next 10 years will advance our understanding of aging enough that we see some anti-aging drugs and treatments that might target inflammation, insulin resistance, or proteins in the brain that can get distorted and cause neurodegenerative disease.”
The future isn’t far away. You have the opportunity to seize it and make it what you want it to be.