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.

We are being tested by smoke, fire, heat and disease

As we emerge from the pandemic, Kamloopsians expect that summer, especially this summer, will be liberating.

image: Globe and Mail

After being cooped up all winter, carefully  cloistering ourselves and observing ceremonial cleansing, we look forward to being outside, basking in the glory of Kamloops’ legendary heat.

But this summer, the heat is oppressive. And like the pandemic, the smoke keeps us indoors. Now all we want to do is seek the refuge of an air conditioned shelter.

It all tests our resiliency and takes its toll on our psyche.

Instead of being rewarded for our good hygiene in fighting the pandemic, we are stuck inside as thick smoke from wildfires that blanket the city.

When you’re choking on smoke and your eyes are watering, it’s bad for your physical health to be outside. And it’s bad for your mental health to be inside.

We imagined that the “new normal” will be adjusting to a world in which most people are vaccinated and COVID-19 is just another bug in the cast of flu characters.

But our new normal will have to include hotter summers, wildfires and smoke. The areas burned will become even greater.

The area burned by wildfires in Canada has doubled since the early 1970s, says Dr. Mike Flannigan, research chair for fire science at Thompson Rivers University.

And it’s only going to get worse, says Flannigan, – it’s just a matter of how much worse. Modest predictive modelling suggests the area burned in Canada will double again by the end of the century; more aggressive modelling predicts an increase by 11 times.

We are getting familiar with the measurement of the smoke hazard –just how bad is it? The hazard is measured by the weight of smoke particles in a certain volume of air; specifically, the weight of PM2.5 particles in micrograms per cubic metre.

What makes the PM2.5 particles so potent is that they can affect every organ in the body, not just the lungs.

Sarah Henderson, scientific director in environmental health services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says that the particles are dangerous long before you can smell and taste the smoke. At levels of only 30 micrograms per cubic metre, adverse reactions begin:

“When it looks really bad, people think it is really bad,” she said. “But it becomes unhealthy long before it looks terrible. The immunological response ends up causing inflammation, and that inflammation is systemic.”

Concerned about the smoke hazard, I recently installed an air sensor, made by Purple Air, in my house. While the weekly average reading has been nine micrograms per cubic metre, which is safe, sometimes it peaks at over 50.

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, has studied people’s resiliency in the aftermath of hurricanes, terrorist attacks, life-threatening injuries and epidemics such as the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Bonanno’s research shows three common psychological responses to hardship. Two thirds of people are resilient and maintain relatively stable psychological and physical health. About 25 percent struggle temporarily with psychopathology such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and then recover. And 10 percent suffer lasting psychological distress.

We are being tested on a number of fronts. Physical and mental illnesses are not a sign of weakness –they provide an occasion for everyone to rise to the challenge, to draw closer together and support those in need.