Saturday, June 24, 2017

Lifespan Differs from Health Span

Photo by Quinn Dombroski.
Because I am a gerontologist, people often talk to me about their desire for longevity.

But is this wise?

I spent three years volunteering in a multi-level care center, observing the difference between lifespan (how long a person lives) and health span (how long a person lives without disability).

The all-too-human desire for longevity reminds me of the Greek myth of Tithonus.

He was a mortal who was the beloved of Eos, the Titan goddess of the dawn. She asked Zeus to bestow eternal life upon Tithonus. Zeus did so.

But Tithonus did not receive eternal youth. Instead, age transformed him into a grasshopper.

And that problem--immortality vs eternal youth--has been exaggerated in the 21st Century as people in industrialized nations are living several years longer than their great grandparents.


Advances in sanitation, health education, preventative medicine and curative medicine has allowed more and more people to live into late adulthood, more into their 80s, 90s, and 100s than ever before.

See the post Life Expectancy vs Life Span for definitions and statistics. 

Many people are enjoying good health through much of their late life. However, not all people of advanced age live without disability and disease.

The National Institutes on Aging (NIA) explains the difference between lifespan and health span in the online publication Biology of Aging.  The chapter, "Living Long and Well" notes the important differences.

NIA hopes that continued research can help close the gap so that people have very few years of disability in advanced age.

A lot of research about the aging process is conducted with insects and animals. However, longitudinal studies are bearing great fruit.  Also, there is an increase in the number of studies of the oldest old: centenarians and supercentenarians.

Other related search terms include compression of morbidity, disability-adjusted life-years (DALY), Healthy Life Years (HLY), healthy life expectancy (HALE), and disability-free life expectancy.

It is exciting to read this research and to adopt healthy lifestyle choices advocated by a variety of medical experts.  But still the question remains: Is it wise to petition Zeus, God, or the medical community for immortality?

I don't have an easy answer for how to close the gap between life span and health span. Even if I accept the existence of "the gap," I don't have an easy answer for how to live gracefully for months, years, or even a decade with poor health.

And avoidance isn't a great option.  Every time I see a grasshopper, I'm reminded that the Greeks' cautionary tale, appropriate even for our modern era: there will probably always be a difference between immortality and eternal youth.

Related:

Leisure World Cohort Turning 90







14 comments:

  1. Good point about immortality; I volunteer at a retirement home and see vibrant residents there, and on the other hand I see people who are very sad and listless indeed and don't respond to their surroundings.

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    1. Terra: Thank you for sharing your observation that aging affects people very differently. There is so much variation in late adulthood!

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  2. Most people say they only want to live as long as they are healthy, but I suspect, when the time of disability arrives, they too, won't want to let go! The urge to survive is very strong in humans.

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    1. I keep running scenarios about my late life, but I suspect that I will still feel unprepared, and I will probably do something unexpected. Sigh.

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  3. Okay, interesting perspective. I love this.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by the blog, Michelle!

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  4. Been thinking about this a lot recently as my dad closes in on 83 and I reflect on the fact his mother died at 102. Lifespan health span can we impact it can we control it… And when does the quality of life begin to dip even though we are still physically and even sometimes mentally here.

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    1. Great questions. More and more I realize that I don't have easy answers on how to respond to age-related challenges. I have information but not necessarily wisdom and confidence. Sigh.

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  5. Don't we all want to have a long health span! I am an advocate of living life well now not for later. Great post Karen!

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    1. Agreed. While we can plan for the future, really there are so many possible scenarios, it's nearly impossible to be "prepared." So I advocate acting fully one day at a time. I am a bit of the "ant" and a bit of the "grasshopper" in how I confront potential aging challenges. Thanks for stopping by the blog.

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  6. My Dad passed at 64 after retiring...but he died doing what he loved...playing golf. My Mom on the other hand died at 86 in a nursing home not knowing who I was...or who she was. Which one is the better one?

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    1. Good question. I wish I could how my last 10 years play out, but I'm walking backward into my future. Dang it. All my best to everyone addressing late-life challenges and living in that "gap" (or supporting others in the "gap") between lifespan and health span.

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  7. You've got me thinking about life span vs. health span and also what it means to be healthy or to thrive. When I was younger, I thought it would be better to die young than shrivel up slowly in old age. But now that I have lived with illness and witnessed failed health in people I love, I see the beauty that comes when our bodies fail and the pain comes. Pain has transformed and refined me in ways nothing else could. Even the thought of maybe living someday in a nursing facility doesn't sting like it used to because my life can still be fruitful if that time comes...since I am called to be a light and a fragrance, who knows what will look like if I am fortunate enough to live that long?

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    1. Michele: Thank you for sharing your perspective on late adulthood and frailty. Your comment is thought provoking. All my bests to you.

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