As Western societies continue to age we will hear increasingly of healthspan.
Healthspan measures those years of people’s lives that are without disease or chronic illness. We might call the opposite of healthspan: illness-span or disease-span.
Over the last two hundred years average lifespan has grown immensely in most countries, due to better control and treatment of illnesses, lower infant mortality, better hygiene, sanitation, housing and public welfare services. In the UK, for example, average lifespan has increased from 41 years in 1841, 58 years in 1925 to 81 years in 2020
The later years of people’s lives, however, have seen increases in illness and disease as mortality decreases have been accompanied by rises in morbidity – chronic health conditions.
Across most developed countries, lifespan averages have continued to increase in recent years. Japan, which has led advances in populations’ longevity has seen average lifespan expectations at birth increase from 84.4 to 86.9 years for females and from 77.7 to 81.5 years for males over the period 2000 to 2019. In that same period respective “healthy years” expectations at birth changed from 73.5 to 75.5 for females and from 69.5 to 72.6 for males. So although years lived were increasing, those lived in poor health were increasing more.
This has been the experience of many “seniors” in the developed world in recent decades.
It does not have to be that way, though, for the vast majority of people.
Healthspan has been increasingly discussed and recorded by governments during the last decade. The more active have set out public health policies to influence and support healthier later-life experiences. As our Western societies continue to age over the next thirty years we will be increasingly asked how we want to live our later years.
An advertising campaign by one pioneering government in this area has pointedly queried:
“What will your last ten years look like? Will you be quick enough for a game of tag with your grandchildren? Strong enough to embrace every moment? Will you grow old with vitality, or get old with disease? It’s time to decide”.
That campaign’s messages were directed largely to seniors and people nearing that stage of life. In reality we don’t just switch from healthy years one day to chronic illness the next. The way we live our lives each day will shape the length of our on-going wellbeing and vitality, determining our length of healthy, disease-free life.
As deterioration in our wellbeing happens gradually, many of us will not be aware of the insidious nature of our physiology’s decline and illnesses’ sneaky advances. Often, at least, until a significant health event rears its ugly head.
Although it’s frequently possible to address and ameliorate the effects of chronic disease and illness when it does appear, the immediate and long-run benefits of maintaining and improving our wellbeing are available to us all now.