What Is A Healthspan And Why Is It More Important Than Lifespan?
The Difference Between Healthspan and Lifespan
In 2022, American life expectancy has decreased for the second year in a row, driven by the pandemic, now sitting at around 76 years old (the average U.S. lifespan was 79 years old pre-COVID). Healthspan, on the other hand, has continued to increase steadily, with the average healthspan around 66 years old in 2019, according to the American Heart Association.
While lifespan denotes the length of time someone or something lives, healthspan has a more nuanced definition.
“While it is unlikely everyone would agree on a single definition, one common definition is that healthspan is the period of life spent in good health, free from the chronic diseases and disabilities of aging,” says Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, a professor of pathology at the University of Washington, in his article How Healthy is the Healthspan Concept?.
Today, healthspans are significantly longer than they were even a hundred years ago when the average U.S. citizen only lived to be around 47. Driven by a drastic decrease in infant mortality and a decline in heart disease death rates, the average lifespan of much of the world increased by almost 30 years throughout the 20th century, in what Dr. Eileen M. Crimmins calls “perhaps the greatest human accomplishment of the past century,” in her article Lifespan and Healthspan: Past, Present, and Promise.
Many researchers are now putting more weight on increasing healthspan in an effort to maximize the quality of life in later years. To approximate healthspan, the World Health Organization (WHO) uses a term called HALE, or healthy life expectancy, to determine the average age of serious disease onset.
For example, some of the leading causes of death in the U.S. include heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke. The average age of each disease’s first occurrence is between 60 and 65. Other top causes of death include lower respiratory infections and type 2 diabetes—the age of onset for each at 75 and 54 years old, respectively. Using the average ages of onset plus frequency, researchers have determined that average American healthspans are in the high 60s.
So why is healthspan important? For one, increasing healthspan can help close life expectancy gaps across the country, which are pretty drastic. One study published by Jama Internal Medicine found that, in 2014, the average life expectancy for someone born in Oglala Lakota County, South Dakota, home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, was 66 years, while someone born in Summit County, Colorado had a life expectancy of 86 years.
The life expectancy gap in the U.S. looks a lot like the racial wealth gap. The better access an individual has to quality healthcare, healthy foods, gyms, and outdoor space, the higher their expected healthspan will be. The New York Times recently reported that COVID-19 has caused the Native American life expectancy to fall from 72 to 65 years old, citing factors like obstructed access to healthcare and systemic poverty. The article says that a life expectancy drop of less than a year is worrying—seven years is sinister.
“Because lifespan and healthspan are intimately related, focusing on healthspan should help level the wellness playing field for more people,” says Tim Peterson of Washington University’s Department of Medicine.
Keep in mind, however, that healthspans aren’t objective. One person’s definition of “healthy” might differ from another’s, and, notably, “health is not a binary trait with only two states: good and bad,” says Kaeberlein. Health is also variable, with some folks seeing periods of poor health and recovery throughout their lives and others living with disorders diagnosed in childhood.
The concept of a healthspan is less cut-and-dried than that of lifespan, but the principle of measuring healthspans is concrete, with a focus on increasing folks’ quality of life instead of simply increasing length of life.
How do we think about increasing our own healthspans? Preventing age-related mental and physical decline can involve both western medicine and lifestyle choices. The most powerful tools for expanding individual health remain as simple as always—daily movement, eating and sleeping well, and refraining from drugs and alcohol.
Two tried-and-true healthspan lengtheners include following a Mediterranean diet, heavy on produce, whole grains, healthy fats, and maintaining regular moderate exercise like bike rides or long walks. Getting enough quality sleep and maintaining healthy relationships with others are two more important factors in healthy aging.
According to the World Health Organization, poor mental health can also be as detrimental to healthspan as smoking or lack of exercise. But note, these longevity tips are heavily dependent on wealth—living in a food desert limits someone’s ability to follow a Mediterranean diet, and living in a leafy suburb makes it much easier to go on long walks or bike rides in a safe area with clean air.
Here are five things you can do today to help with healthspan (or to help ensure others have access to improving their healthspan as well):
Eat whole vegetables, fruits, grains, and healthy fats. If you have community fridges in your area, stock them with these ingredients.
Join active group settings. Maybe your area has bike or run clubs; if not, start one yourself, helping you and your neighbors get outside and find community.
Get involved with local government to advocate for healthy places to live for all—maybe you focus on better lunches in public schools or environmental advocacy.
Join a community garden or volunteer at an urban farm. Improving healthy food access starts close to home, and you’ll foster a relationship with the earth and your community.
Be a good friend. While it seems too simple to be effective, this is where healthy communities start—lend a helping hand, give what you can, and be there for others in your life when they need you. What goes around comes around.
While the concept of the healthspan is far from foolproof, it provides a useful framework for thinking about aging. Instead of trying to live longer lives, we might aim to live longer, healthier lives.
Natalie Gale is a Boston-based freelance journalist. When she’s not writing about art, food, or sustainability, you can find her biking to the farmers’ market, baking, sewing, or planning her next Halloween costume. Say hi on Instagram!