Forget Life Span. Focus on your Health Span.

When I first heard about the concept of Health Span, I recognized right away that this was the focus of “Food Wisdom for Women” — giving women good information about nutrition and food so they can improve health and quality of life while aging. Who wouldn’t want to increase the healthy years and minimize the time spent dealing with failing health?

First, what exactly is meant by “health span”? Does it mean years of perfect health followed by a sudden decline? No, that’s just not realistic. One researcher suggests this definition: living free from a serious disease that could cause death. Hmm, OK. But some people live with potentially serious diseases, and yet are able to enjoy high quality of life. A person might live for years in remission from cancer, or after having by-pass surgery or two hip replacements.

To some extent, the definition of “health span” is up to the individual. I’d say freedom from disabling medical problems is key. You might have issues, but they are being successfully managed and do not interfere with your enjoyment of life. I do not think of health span as years spent completely free from any medical problems whatsoever. Things happen as we age, but we deal with them and adjust if necessary, so we can get on with living.

Aside from a wordy definition that doesn’t fit everyone, I wanted to be able to depict health span visually. I’d seen a variety of graphics, but didn’t like any of them. Then I found one that seemed to make the point in a simple way, and I adapted it for my own version, which you see above.

Let me explain. Let’s say you will live to the current average life expectancy of 79 years. The green bars represent years spent in reasonably good health. You enjoy life. Any medical issues you do have do not seriously impact your enjoyment of life, or only do so temporarily (such as a fracture or an infection or need for cataract surgery). As the top bar shows, the average person can expect 63 years of reasonable health, followed by 16 years of declining health that impacts quality of life. Compare this to the bottom bar, which represents a theoretical person who sticks to a healthy lifestyle. That person’s Health Span is extended, let’s say to 75 years. Then health declines for the next 4 years.

Who wouldn’t want more healthy years? In fact, instead of 4 years, you could experience only a brief year or two of declining health due to some acute disease process. So many more years of enjoying your favorite activities, spending time with family, traveling or taking up new hobbies. It’s even conceivable that a longer health span ends up increasing your overall life span. You might add 5 or more years to your life, but still only have 1 or 2 years of declining health.

So how do you increase your health span? Well, as I noted, diet and nutrition are essential pieces of that puzzle. In my humble (not actually) opinion, you cannot improve health span without following a great diet and perhaps adding some nutritional supplements that counteract the impact of aging on digestion and absorption.

What’s a “great diet”? As I discuss at length in my book, it’s primarily plant foods, but isn’t necessarily vegetarian. Adequate intake of high protein foods is essential as well, with little added sugar and few processed foods. There may be a place for nutritional supplements, depending on your diet, activity and medical issues.

Health Span as Policy Priority

Life span has been steadily increasing since the mid-19th century. In the US, the current expectation is close to 80 years old. In a few years, that number will hit 88. Meanwhile Health Span is not growing at all. Which means all those extra years added to your life might be spent in disability and illness, dependent on medical care and prescription drugs. If the current average health span of 63 years remains unchanged — or worse, decreases thanks to the obesity epidemic — that means another 9 years of poor health; a total of 25 years spent debilitated by medical problems. That’s worrisome. Millions of people spending many more years needing constant medical care is a recipe for disaster. No wonder health experts and governments want to find ways to improve our collective health span. We can’t afford not to.

No surprise, a handful of people with money to burn are funding research on ways to improve health span. In many cases (unfortunately), the focus is on developing magical drugs or genetic technologies that can accomplish this, while paying lip service to lifestyle.

Maybe something will come of their efforts. The problem with this kind of research is that it will take years, probably decades, to come to any conclusions about whether some intervention is actually useful. Thousands of people will have to use the treatment or a placebo for many years. Who want to be part of such a study? What if you’re on the placebo? What if the treatment turns out to have strange unintended consequences years down the road? oops!

Until the miracle health span extender is discovered or invented, what to do? Well, do as much as you can with lifestyle: great diet, daily physical activity, time spent at interesting or rewarding pursuits to stimulate your mind, as much reduction of anxiety and stress as possible. These things do work, and don’t have any known unintended adverse side effects. If you need more tips on the nutrition part of that equation, buy my book.