Today I want to talk about the most important concept in thinking about your health: lifespan vs healthspan. Lifespan is simply the number of years you are alive and breathing on Earth, irregardless of health and quality of life. Healthspan, on the other hand, is the number of years on Earth you feel healthy and able.
Modern medicine’s focus has always been on lifespan: how can we make drugs and therapies that extend the number of years we are alive. And it has done an amazing job at this over the past 100 years — In 1920, the average life expectancy was 55 years old and has climbed to 78 years old in 2020. This is in large part, thanks to antibiotics, vaccines, cancer therapies, and certain medications. We should always be appreciative at what modern medicine has achieved for us and the added years we can have to enjoy our families, friends, and communities.
But on the flip side, adding years to your life without also improving health is not a desirable long-term strategy. I believe it goes without saying that a life of poor health is something we want to avoid.
Living to 90 years old but significantly limited by pain, mental decline, or having to take a pile of medications is not how we would have envisioned our “golden years.”
Healthspan in the US:
According to the WHO, the average healthspan is around 63 years old. After that, there is a dramatic uptick in chronic disease diagnoses, hospitalizations, and prescription medications. That translates to about 20% of the average American’s life being spent unwell. To paint a bleaker picture, BCBS put out a statement in 2019 highlighting that this decline in health may now be starting around 27 years old! I can only imagine how this has changed since COVID.
And I think healthspan is rapidly shrinking. For the past 2 years or so, I’ve noticed a dramatic increase in high cholesterol, increased weight, new diabetes diagnoses. I feel like I am seeing more cancer and autoimmune diagnoses now. Even more shocking, I’m seeing a lot this in patients under the age of 40.
How do I improve healthspan?
To improve healthspan, we must focus on healing the mind, body, and spirit. Our bodies are designed well and, when faced with illness, wants to be well. When we provide it the right inputs, our bodies will heal: a proper diet that nourishes us, regular physical activity that strengthens our bodies, high quality sleep that refreshes the brain, and meaningful social connections that enriches our lives.
We must play the long-game with health. Know where you want to end up and work backwards to determine the steps to get there. Small, incremental changes done every day will create large, meaningful results each year. James Clear highlighted this strategy best in his book Atomic Habits: “If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.”
Our passion is to help people feel healthier longer. By understanding the importance of disease prevention and proper health maintenance, you will be giving your body the best chance to thrive and experience longer, happier years. And this translates to more meaningful time spent with your loved ones, playing with your grandkids, traveling.
I hope this provides some encouragement, no matter where you are in your health journey. As much disease as I see everyday, I also see incredible success: radical changes to how we live our lives create radical changes in our lives. Some of you can just stay the course. Some of you need only make small tweaks. Some of you may need more intensive help — this is why we have added on health coaching and precision medicine options to provide you more guidance and support.
I ask that you take some time today and ask yourself these questions:
- What part of my health (or future health) am I most worried about?
- What is one, easy thing I can do that is a step in the right direction of better health?
- What is keeping me from making that change right now?
- We all have the power, innate inside of us, to live vibrant lives. Let’s increase healthspan today!
Troy Jackson, MD