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Health & Wellness

Adding Health to Your Years: Life Span vs. Health Span

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When we think of age, we often think of a number and we ask questions like how long do you want to live or at what age did your relatives live to? That’s because we typically think of age in terms of lifespan – or the average length of life.

But what if age really wasn’t just a number?   Over the last several years, the field of aging research has advanced science toward helping to preserve quality of life, not just length of life, as we grow older. In other words – health span versus life span.  Put simply, health span is the number of years in which you live as healthy as possible.

The American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR) is one organization that has been supporting this type of biomedical research on healthy aging since the early 1980s.  AFAR Executive Director Stephanie Lederman notes, “By focusing on research that will extend health span, we are essentially working toward solutions that will help people live healthier as they live longer.”  Interestingly, Lederman isn’t talking about immortality or the fountain of youth, which can be a common misconception. 

Consider this: What do cardiovascular disease; cancer and arthritis all have in common?  The obvious connection is that they often come up as you get older.  For this reason, it’s being suggested that we can’t just look at diseases in isolation without considering “how” and “why” we age – what’s referred to as the biology of aging

 “In particular, researchers supported by our organization are trying to understand the relationship between biological aging and age-related diseases, as well as other conditions that diminish our quality of life,” notes Lederman. “It’s exciting to think that based on this knowledge, we are now in a place where we are ready to start moving from the labs into our lives.” 

One example of this research, the TAME (Targeting Aging with Metformin) trial, which will test a common treatment for type 2 diabetes and whether it can delay the onset of age-related diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. If successful, Lederman says the TAME trial could “revolutionize how we treat aging by opening the door for other interventions.”

As people age, they are often afraid of losing their independence and faculties. Studies like those funded by AFAR aim to alleviate the fear of living longer, with the potential to stay healthier longer.  “We are on the brink of major breakthroughs in aging research and it’s this type of forward-thinking that is getting us closer to finding treatments that could have an impact on our health as we age, and getting us closer to our goal of increasing health span,” added Lederman.

AFAR isn’t alone in understanding this need.  Recently, the organization partnered with PBS on a documentary called Incredible Aging: Adding Life to Your Years, in which over a dozen AFAR experts provide perspectives on the promise of staying healthier as we grow older thanks to research and lifestyle choices that all of us can make today.

While scientists and researchers continue the pursuit of a better health span for our aging population, there are also many ways to help boost your own potential for a healthier, longer life. 

Here are a few tips to consider :

  • Diet matters. Make healthy choices as often as you can. Drink fluids and incorporate plenty of fiber-rich whole grains and vegetables into your meals.
  • Get moving. You don’t have to hit the gym every day, but maybe try a walk. Find an activity you enjoy and make it part of your daily routine.
  • Reset your clock. Sleep matters, so make sure you’re getting enough of it. Invest in your rest so your body has time to reset itself each day.
  • Discover gratitude. Sometimes life can be challenging.  When it is, try to focus on the small things with a “glass half full” mentality.  Write down what you're grateful for and don’t be afraid to express your feelings.
  • Have fun: Take up a new hobby or find more time to enjoy an activity you love. Sign up for a class or learn a new skill (like cooking or a foreign language).
  • Get together. Carve out time to be with friends and family, expand your social circle, volunteer, and join groups with common interests
  • Maintain your brain. Keep your mind sharp with simple mental exercises like crossword puzzles and reading. 

    References: 1. American Federation of Aging Research. TAME. https://www.afar.org/natgeo/ 2. West Health Institute/NORC Survey on Aging in America. http://www.norc.org/Research/Projects/Pages/WHI-NORC-Aging-Survey.aspx 3. Harvard Health Publishing. What's more important than your life span? Your health span. https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/whats-more-important-than-your-life-span-your-health-span

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