Many of us have heard of lifespan, but do we know the importance of healthspan? Healthspan is the period of life spent in good health free from chronic diseases and the disability of aging. It is not merely the absence of disease, but health is the state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. If one is past their healthspan, that means they are chronically sick, typically with a degenerating condition. Unlike the average lifespan, which for Americans is roughly 79-years-old, we don’t have a marker for the average healthspan. Understanding how we age and what we can do to promote healthy aging is the key to building upon our healthspan. Once thought to be unavoidable, consequences of aging are now considered preventable.
People measure health like beauty. One person may feel healthy if their doctor says their vital signs are normal and they are able to take care of their personal needs. Another may feel unhealthy at the same level if they had to give up or restrict some enjoyed activity.
The Prevalence of Disability as We Age
“We lose our years of health based on the prevalence of disability,” said TPMG Family Medicine Physician, Linda G.P. Schneider, MD. “For those between the ages of 65 and 74, around 18 percent have at least one disability. Nearly 25 percent of people ages 75 years or older live with some type of disability”.
These functional limitations can be simple things like difficulty seeing even with glasses or hearing even with aids, cognition, and mobility. The most common preventable chronic conditions leading to disability include heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the United States. According to the CDC, each year, one in every four deaths is attributed to heart disease. Several medical conditions and lifestyle choices place people at higher risk for heart disease, including diabetes, excessive alcohol use, poor diet, little physical activity, and being overweight.
Diabetes remains the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S. and is most prevalent in seniors age 65 and older, affecting around 25 percent of the demographic.
Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs either when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the amount of insulin produced. Over time, complications include damage to blood vessels that can lead to heart attack, stroke, and kidney problems.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disorder causing the brain cells to die. Early signs of the disease include forgetting recent events or conversations that persist and worsen over time. Increasing age is the greatest known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, mainly affecting people over the age of 65. Alzheimer’s disease is not a preventable condition; however, evidence suggests eating a healthy diet, and exercising your mind and body can help lower your risk for developing the disease.
The preservation of health and prevention of disease is one way we can extend our healthspan. Lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation, increased activity, proper nutrition, weight loss, and adequate sleep all contribute to health preservation.
“Individuals who smoke are at an increased risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), and two to four times more likely to suffer from a stroke,” said Dr. Schneider.
Smoking is responsible for one in three cancer-related deaths and increases the risk of osteoporosis in women, and rheumatoid arthritis in men and women. Individuals who are diabetic and smoke have a 30 to 40 percent harder time managing their condition.
Activity is one of the easiest ways to increase longevity and improve your overall health. The benefits of exercise are abundant and include decreased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol, colon cancer, breast cancer, and uterine cancer.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity involving two major muscle groups for two or more days a week.
Along with proper exercise, adequate nutrition is an important component in health preservation. We need protein, fat, carbs, fiber, vitamins, and minerals to properly fuel our bodies. As we age, healthy eating can boost immunity, fight illness-causing toxins, enhance memory, and improve emotional well-being.
If you are underweight, you are at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and a weaker immune system. Recommendations for those who struggle to reach a healthy weight include a protein-rich meal replacement beverage, nuts, eggs, and Greek yogurt.
Individuals who are overweight are at an increased risk for high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and dementia. Recommendations to lose weight include timing nutrients throughout the day, increasing dietary fiber, drinking enough water, and getting adequate sleep.
Shift in Habit
If we want to live longer in good health, success boils down to mindset. Ideally, as we age, we don’t want to enter into the “red zone” of decay and disease but improve the longevity of our health. Healthspan begins with habit-behaviors that are repeated regularly and tend to occur subconsciously. Ideally, this process would start at childhood and continue throughout our life; however, for many, it is not until retirement age sets in that we begin to prioritize our health. Regardless of age, your primary care provider is your best resource to give you the necessary resources and tools to get your health on track.
About Linda G.P. Schneider, MD
TPMG Hampton Family Medicine physician Linda G.P. Schneider, MD, has been practicing on the Peninsula for the past 37 years. She is board certified in family medicine and is a Diplomate of the American Board of Lipidology. Dr. Schneider specializes in lipidology and educates patients on high cholesterol management and treatment. She also serves as Clinical Director for the TPMG Clinical Research Division in Newport News.