Published: April 20, 2023 | By: Fortune Well
The craze to live longer is having a moment.
That moment is, partly, a result of advanced medicine and technology that can help extend lifespan, says Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, an internal medicine physician and founder of End Well, a non-profit focused on end-of-life care. It’s also spawned by the rich, who have chosen not to succumb to the game of life, but to try and beat it—spending millions on longevity treatments and making dramatic lifestyle changes not accessible to the masses.
But solely focusing on lifespan can have a damaging effect, impacting people’s well-being as they age, says Ungerleider.
“It is important to approach the longevity movement with a critical mindset and recognize that the pursuit of longevity should not come at the cost of quality of life,” Ungerleider tells Fortune. “The pursuit of immortality can lead to a focus on quantity over quality of life and can detract from the meaningful experiences and relationships that make life worth living.”
Beyond affecting someone’s quality of life, focusing on longevity alone doesn’t always address the health of those later years.
“Being able to grow old is not in parallel with healthy, disease-free living,” says Dr. Scott Braunstein, an internal medicine and emergency medicine doctor and the national medical director at Sollis Health.
Lifespan is the number of years someone lives from birth until death, while healthspan is the number of years someone is healthy without chronic and debilitating disease. The earliest mentions of healthspan describe it as, “the maintenance of full function as nearly as possible to the end of life.”
Often, people use these terms interchangeably, or solely use lifespan. If a community has a higher life expectancy, it makes sense that they would live longer, healthier lives, but that correlation is not always foolproof. The gap between health span and life span is roughly 10 years, Braunstein says.
“People tend to live the last 10 years of their life burdened with disease or poor quality of life,” he says. A 2021 perspective published in the Regenerative Medicine journal estimates the gap as roughly nine years.
According to recent research looking into life expectancy across the U.S., seven out of the 10 states ranking highest in life expectancy also ranked in the top 10 for states with the healthiest lifestyle. But D.C., for example, has the sixth healthiest lifestyle but the 23rd longest life expectancy.
“While life span is a certainly an important measure of health and well-being, it is not the only one,” says Ungerleider. “Health span is increasingly being recognized as an important concept because it emphasizes the importance of not only living a long life but also living a healthy and productive life.”
Some disease burden is a factor of genetics and less associated with lifestyle habits. Additionally, access to quality healthcare, among other systemic issues creates inequities in who can control their healthspan and lifestyle. But experts share a list of ways to prioritize healthspan that may be more accessible.
Lengthening healthspan starts with thinking about aging well holistically, meaning prioritizing physical health, mental health, and daily lifestyle factors all in one. It also means prioritizing ways to feel joy and connection, which can reduce stress and the risk of chronic health conditions.
“You can’t just look at one or two factors that might make you live longer, but ignore other things,” he says. So if you’re eating a rigidly nutritious diet but forgoing social connection and getting outdoors, you may be thinking of healthspan all wrong.
And the World Health Organization says addressing the healthspan-lifespan gap starts with viewing health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
The motivating factor behind wanting to live longer and healthier is where to begin, Ungerledier says. Having a goal for making specific lifestyle habit changes makes it easier—and more worthwhile—to stick with them.
When changing habits to live as healthfully as possible versus as long as possible, people may be more willing to keep their habits because they can envision an enjoyable quality of life over an arbitrary number of added years. Having a goal to enjoy being a part of his grandson’s life may lead one man to more willingly adopt lifestyle factors that improve his overall health, for example.
Countless research points have shown altering daily habits around exercise, diet, and stress management can indeed impact your risk for chronic health conditions affecting healthspan.
Get outside and move. Eat a diet low in processed foods and rich in a diverse range of whole foods filled with protein and fiber. Protect your brain and reduce stress as you age by taking breaks, limiting multi-tasking, and trying new things to create more neural connections.
“Individuals can consider prioritizing healthy aging through exercise, a healthy diet, and self-care, which can help improve overall physical and mental well-being at any age,” Ungerleider says.
Research shows maintaining strong connections throughout adult life is the key to feeling fulfilled and happy. Having meaningful social connections can also improve healthspan and lifespan simultaneously, Braunstein says. And being able to count on someone can reduce loneliness, which predisposes people to chronic health problems and early mortality. Having reliable connections also ensures you have someone in case of an emergency or someone to help transport you to routine doctor’s visits as you age.
Seeing the longevity movement as an investment in our daily well-being and health can push healthspan and lifespan to, one day, increase in parallel, Braunstein says.
In many ways, the obsession with longevity helps mask the fear of death—propelled by the uncertainty of what we will endure in our final years.
“This fear can be exacerbated by cultural and societal pressures that place a high value on youth and longevity,” Ungerleider says, but seeing aging as a way to maximize those later years over escaping death may be the key to lengthening healthspan and shifting the tone.
“It is important to remember that aging is a normal and natural process that should be embraced rather than feared or avoided,” she says.
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