Healthspan versus Lifespan
When we think of ageing we often talk about living to “an old age” or “dying in my 90s like grandad”. When thinking of ageing in this way, we are referring to a person’s life span or the number of years they accumulate before their death.
As we age, we flippantly claim “age is just a number”, maybe as a way to appease our egos. But what if age really wasn’t just a number? Over the last several years, precision medicine has advanced science toward helping to preserve the quality of life, not just length of life. So we have a different way to measure the ageing process; our health span versus our lifespan.
Put simply, your health span is the number of years in which you experience vibrant health before a decline.
The current mainstream medical model is increasingly reactionary. It provides assistance with current health concerns without addressing potential future issues or prioritising great health into old age. There is a saying we are “living and dying longer”. It’s the paradox of modernity. Medicine can keep us alive longer, but in what state of health? What is the quality of life if a person is living with fatigue, diabetes or chronic health conditions from the age of 60? Is it the best medical practice for patients to live 20 plus years in sub-optimal health?
So where should healthcare professionals place their focus? On lifespan or health span. The reality is, with proper testing and individualised care both should go hand in hand.
How can Precision Healthcare improve both healthspan and lifespan?
Precision Healthcare or medicine refers to the tailoring of medical treatment to the individual characteristics of each patient. It utilises genetic testing alongside data and biofeedback with regards to lifestyle factors to capture a holistic view of a person’s health.
Precision healthcare can determine any underlying risk for future chronic health concerns and adjust lifestyle factors such as nutrition, sleep and supplementation to prevent illness before it occurs. Because of this truly preventative approach to health, a person’s healthspan can run concurrently with their lifespan.
Obviously, this has huge positive implications for the individual, but increasing healthspan is something we should all care about at a population level. At his 2013 TedX talk titled “live healthy, longer” Brian Kennedy the President and CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, stated in 2002 less than 10 percent of the countries of the world had more than 20 percent of their population aged 60 and over. By 2050 it is predicted to be over 40 percent of the countries in the world will have more than 20 percent of their population over the age of 60. This has huge implications for healthcare costs and availability if significant proportions of those in this age category are living with chronic or degenerative health conditions.
In some countries like Korea, China and Japan it’s predicted over 40 percent of the population will be elderly. The global statistics are also heavily skewed by third world countries where famine, poverty and rural accidents drastically reduce life expectancy.
Compounding this scenario is the decreased working age population whose taxes would pay for the healthcare system.
In short, we need to implement healthcare systems now to enable people to live healthily...for longer.
How to bring healthspan and lifespan closer together.
Unless you die in an accident, it’s likely your lifespan will always slightly exceed your healthspan. However, the single biggest barrier to healthy life expectancy is chronic disease burden.
In 2012 the Lancet published a list of the top ten risks for developing chronic disease. All of these risks can be reduced with lifestyle changes and tailored healthcare protocols.
The risks include; smoking, excessive alcohol use, high BMI, elevated blood glucose levels, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diets low in fruits and vegetables, diets low in nuts and seeds, physical inactivity and drug use.
Precision health helps implement lifestyle changes that will be most effective for each individual and when you see results immediately behaviour changes are far more likely to stick.