What’s the difference between lifespan and healthspan?

According to many researchers, we need to focus on increasing our healthspan. But what is healthspan, exactly?

We explain everything you need to know about healthspan and the healthy habits that can influence how long you live in good health. 

Lifespan vs healthspan: what’s the difference?

Lifespan is how long you, or any living thing, could live. Lifespan is more of a maximum capacity rather than being based on individual factors like diet or disease risk. 

Healthspan isn’t just the length of time you are alive but the length of time you live in good health. It’s more about your quality of life than quantity. 

Good health is a little more subjective than lifespan. What one person describes as good health may be another’s idea of poor health. Yet, most people agree healthspan means the number of healthy years you lead, free from chronic and debilitating diseases, where you can live your life in full function. 

The World Health Organization uses the term HALE (healthy adjusted life expectancy at birth) to determine the average age a person can expect to live in full health by looking at the duration of major diseases that cause morbidity but not mortality.    

Lifespan and healthspan are often used side-by-side, but the correlation between living longer and living longer in good health isn’t simple. The average gap between healthspan and lifespan is around nine to ten years [1].

Life expectancy and longevity

Life expectancy is an average predictor of how long someone is expected to live. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) works out this statistical measure by when you were born, how old you are, and other demographic factors [2]. 

Life expectancy has steadily increased since the 19th century and increased by three decades since the mid-twentieth century [3]. In 1841, men could expect to live to just 40.2 years and women to 42.3 years old.  

We can thank these advances to public health initiatives that focused on:   

  • Nutrition 
  • Clean water  
  • Hygiene 
  • Housing 
  • Vaccinations  
  • Antibiotics 

You will have witnessed public health campaigns to address these areas: vaccination programmes, nutrition and food labelling, and, probably most notably, anti-smoking.  

Smoking is still the leading cause of premature, preventable death globally, equating to 8 million deaths a year [4]. It can lead to stroke and coronary heart disease (among other conditions), which are among the leading causes of death. So, the number one piece of advice for increasing lifespan and healthspan is to quit.  

What does longevity mean? 

Longevity means living past the average age of your life expectancy. So, can you increase longevity? 

The absolute promise of a longer-than-average life is one that no one should make. Ageing is complex. While we can manage aspects of risk within our lives, we cannot 100% know our future. Yet, we can improve our chances of having a healthier life. 

What can decrease healthspan?

While lifespan has increased since the mid-twentieth century, parallel healthspan expansion has not followed.  

This has mainly been attributed to the pandemic of chronic diseases that affect a growing older population.  

The four pillars of chronic disease are: 

  • Cancer 
  • Heart disease 
  • Neurodegenerative disease 
  • Type 2 diabetes (and related metabolic dysfunction) 

Can you increase your healthspan?

The simplest ways to help improve your healthspan are through diet and exercise [5]. Making positive lifestyle choices and addressing your modifiable risk factors can increase your chances of avoiding some of these chronic conditions.  

Modifiable risk factors include: 

  • Excess weight 
  • Habits like smoking, drinking, and drug use 
  • Physical inactivity 
  • Poor diet 

Five ways to improve healthspan

1. Exercise for 2.5 to 5 hours a week  

Exercising regularly has many benefits such as helping with your heart health, maintaining a healthy weight, and stability. People who take part in regular moderate and vigorous physical activity have a substantially lower risk of mortality than people who don’t meet the guidelines. 

If you have an inactive lifestyle, you could reduce your mortality risk by 22% to 31% [6] by adding modest levels of exercise. That means either 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity per week.  

Age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia) usually starts in your 40s and 50s. It is a natural age-related decline – to a degree – but it can put you at a higher risk of injury at a time when your bones are becoming frailer. You can help to reduce this decline by building up your muscle mass reserves.  

Current studies suggest that two and a half to five hours of moderate or vigorous physical activity is most beneficial [7]. 

Aim for at least two to three 45-60-minute sessions of moderate to high-intensity exercise per week with a mix of: 

  • Cardio 
  • Strength 
  • Balance 

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2. Eat a healthy diet in moderation 

The Mediterranean diet is cited as one of the healthiest diets you can follow to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and maintain a healthy weight.  

It isn’t only what you eat that it’s important, but how much you eat. Calorie restriction and intermittent fasting are emerging as broadly safe strategies to affect longevity and healthspan by acting on cellular ageing and disease factors [8].   

There is growing evidence that too much low-quality food can fuel many of the chronic health conditions we spoke about earlier. Foods made up of concentrated sugars and refined flour, low fibre intake, consumption of red meat, and imbalance of omega-3 and omega- 6 fats can all increase your cancer risk [9].  

That doesn’t mean that you should starve yourself by any means, and intermittent fasting may not be right for everyone. For example, if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, your calorie needs will be higher.   

Popular intermittent fasting patterns: 

  • 12-hour fast – eating between 8 am – 8 pm 
  • 16-hour fast – eating between 10 am – 6 pm 

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3. Manage your stress 

When we’re stressed, we’re less likely to be able to think clearly which can lead to a poorer quality of life [10]. Greater lifetime stress exposure can also increase your risk of some mental health and physical health conditions.  

It isn’t only your exposure to stress that’s a potential issue – it’s how you deal with it. Stressors can be subjective. What one person finds stressful another person may not find stressful. Healthy coping mechanisms can help us to process and deal with stressors. 

Healthy ways to manage stress: 

  • Get a good night’s sleep – your mental health and sleep quality are closely linked. Ever had a bad night and felt more snappy than usual the next day? Better sleep can help you process and have capacity for the day ahead. Ironically though, you may be too stressed to be able to sleep. Have a look at our tips on how to get a better night’s sleep.   
  • Connect with people – meaningful social interactions are really important for your health. Social isolation can have a significant negative impact on your overall wellbeing [11].   
  • Have some me time – take a walk, go for a cycle, read a book, have a bath, go to a yoga class – do whatever it is that makes you breathe deeply and feel at peace.  

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4. Get to know your health risks 

Not all health conditions show up in their early stages, and many lifestyle-related conditions can be reversed or prevented if identified early enough. 

There’s now more focus on addressing these health risks early, rather than waiting until they take hold when there’s usually much less you can do about them. 

Risk factors for lifestyle-related conditions include: 

  • Being overweight or obese 
  • Not exercising or being sedentary 
  • High blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugars 
  • Smoking or drinking alcohol in excess 

Have a look at our eight biomarkers to check as part of a longevity blood test.  

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5. Address any risky behaviours 

High-risk behaviours increase your risk of disease or injury – so it makes sense to avoid these when we’re looking at increasing our healthspan. 

The most common high-risk behaviours include violence, alcoholism, tobacco use, risky sexual behaviours, and eating disorders. Making healthy lifestyle choices, especially when it comes to these behaviours, should be top of mind when prioritising long-term health.  

It's time to look after the future you 

Blood testing is one tool available to help you understand your current health. Identifying abnormal biomarkers can help you pinpoint areas of your health to work on so that you have the best chance of living a longer life in good health. 

“Optimal

Our Optimal Health Blood Test is our most comprehensive panel, covering 58 biomarkers. 


References

  1. Garmany, A., Yamada, S. and Terzic, A. (2021). Longevity leap: mind the healthspan gap. npj Regenerative Medicine, [online] 6(1), pp.1–7. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41536-021-00169-5.
  2. www.ons.gov.uk. (n.d.). Period and cohort life expectancy explained - Office for National Statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies/methodologies/periodandcohortlifeexpectancyexplained#:~:text=To%20calculate%20life%20expectancy%2C%20we.
  3. Garmany A, Yamada S, Terzic A. Longevity leap: mind the healthspan gap. NPJ Regen Med. 2021 Sep 23;6(1):57. doi: 10.1038/s41536-021-00169-5. PMID: 34556664; PMCID: PMC8460831.
  4. ASH (n.d.). Facts at a Glance. [online] ASH. Available at: https://ash.org.uk/resources/view/facts-at-a-glance#:~:text=Summary.
  5. Increasing Healthspan: Prosper and Live Long. EBioMedicine. 2015 Nov 7;2(11):1559. doi: 10.1016/j.ebiom.2015.11.015. PMID: 26870762; PMCID: PMC4740330.
  6. 26, J. and Berg, S. (2023) Massive study uncovers how much exercise is needed to live longer, American Medical Association. Available at: https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/massive-study-uncovers-how-much-exercise-needed-live-longer#:~:text=With%20that%2C%20the%20study%20notes,about%2035%25%20to%2042%25 (Accessed: 28 December 2023).
  7. O'Keefe EL, Torres-Acosta N, O'Keefe JH, Lavie CJ. Training for Longevity: The Reverse J-Curve for Exercise. Mo Med. 2020 Jul-Aug;117(4):355-361. PMID: 32848273; PMCID: PMC7431070.
  8. Longo VD, Di Tano M, Mattson MP, Guidi N. Intermittent and periodic fasting, longevity and disease. Nat Aging. 2021 Jan;1(1):47-59. doi: 10.1038/s43587-020-00013-3. Epub 2021 Jan 14. PMID: 35310455; PMCID: PMC8932957.
  9. Donaldson MS. Nutrition and cancer: a review of the evidence for an anti-cancer diet. Nutr J. 2004 Oct 20;3:19. doi: 10.1186/1475-2891-3-19. PMID: 15496224; PMCID: PMC526387.
  10. Shields GS, Slavich GM. Lifetime Stress Exposure and Health: A Review of Contemporary Assessment Methods and Biological Mechanisms. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2017 Aug;11(8):e12335. doi: 10.1111/spc3.12335. Epub 2017 Aug 3. PMID: 28804509; PMCID: PMC5552071.
  11. Yang YC, Boen C, Gerken K, Li T, Schorpp K, Harris KM. Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jan 19;113(3):578-83. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1511085112. Epub 2016 Jan 4. PMID: 26729882; PMCID: PMC4725506.

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