I want an improved health span, not life span

I probably won’t die of “old age.” More likely, I’ll die of some disease associated with growing older.

For too many of us, health span is reduced by disease, not old age. Many those diseases are preventable, or could be made less deadly through research, but little money is put into cures because old people get them. It’s ageism, pure and simple.

image: Die at your peak

We are living longer but not necessarily better. While the average lifespan of Canadians is 82 years, the health span is only 72 years. That means a lot of seniors live their last 10 years in poor health. In some cases, it’s a life not worth living.

By “health span,” I mean living healthy, independent and strong lives. Health span can be measured of the quality of life that includes: Mind & cognition (processing speed, short term memory); Body (maintenance of muscle mass, functional movement, freedom from pain).

Andrew Steele, biologist and the author of Ageless: The new science of getting older without getting old, told CBC Radio’s Spark:

“Until now, we’ve been treating medicine in this very unsystematic way. So what we could do by understanding these hallmarks is to potentially come up with treatments to intervene in them directly. And that means preventative treatments; treatments can go in earlier and stop people getting ill in the first place (April 29, 2022).”

Researchers who want to improve the quality of life by reducing the diseases of aging are often met with pushback. Critics say that dying of disease is natural and keeping seniors healthy as they age will result in them living longer. The illogical thinking doesn’t escape Andrew Steele:

“Let’s say I had written a book on cancer research and how I think we’re going to cure leukemia in the next 20 years. Nobody would write me an email saying, ‘Hi, Andrew, you know, this cancer research, aren’t you really worried about all these extra people who are going to be surviving cancer and cluttering up the planet’?”

If we want to improve the health of children by reducing disease, why wouldn’t we want to improve the health of everyone?

The answer is ageism. Another guest on the radio show has done research on how positive attitudes on aging can actually improve the health of seniors.

Becca Levy, a psychologist and epidemiologist at Yale University, found that ageism results in more than hurt feelings or discriminatory behavior. It affects physical and cognitive health and well-being in measurable ways and can take years off one’s health span.

So rather than treating aging as a single, inevitable change in our bodies, it’s more like a series of processes brought about by disease. If those processes can be prevented, or even reversed, then the health span of people could dramatically increase, along with being able to live considerably longer.

Life span has increased by improving health span. Better public health measures such as clean water, antibiotics, and vaccines mean we live longer and healthier.

But diseases that develop with aging remain a barrier to improved health span.

To maximize longevity, we need to delay the onset of the three largest killers of humans: cerebrovascular and cardiovascular, cancer, and neurodegenerative. These three causes of death will kill 75% of us.

For me, the ideal would be a health span equal to my life span.

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