Lifespan vs. Health Span: What's the Difference?

Over the last century, researchers have noted that our life expectancy has increased dramatically. People are living longer than ever before, and while that is cause for celebration, have you ever considered how well-lived those “extra” years are? You may have heard the terms “life span” and “health span” and used them interchangeably, but they have different meanings.

Key takeaways:

This article explores how knowing the difference and making choices that promote a healthy lifestyle can mean a difference in living out your life span with optimal health and well-being.

What is life span?

Life span, called life expectancy, is the estimated age in years that a person will live. For example, at the turn of the twentieth century, the average age of a person’s life span was about 47 years. Today, with healthcare advancements, that number has increased dramatically.

Diseases which were once a “life sentence” are now treated with medications such as antibiotics for severe infections and medical management of chronic diseases. In addition, vaccines for once-life-threatening viruses are available as part of preventative medicine.

We see a reduction in life span following significant health events. For example, the life span decreased by 12 years in 1918 due to the global flu pandemic (Spanish flu). Statistics show a similar response following the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that before the pandemic, the lifespan in the U.S. was 79 years, but in 2022 it dropped for the second year in a row to 76 years. This sequential drop is the first to occur in 100 years. The decline is even more pronounced and tragic in marginalized populations — for example, American Native and Alaskan Native populations, whose life span fell to 65.2 years.

What is health span?

Health span is the expected years to live in good health, without disease, chronic illness, and disability. Despite advances in healthcare, the onset of health problems and chronic illness remains a significant contributing factor to a person’s overall health and well-being.

Several factors determine a person’s health span, including genetics, mental and emotional health, and lifestyle choices. The current average health span sits at 66 years of age which has only increased with people living longer, but many living with chronic illness and disability.

We often believe health span is primarily a result of heredity. For example, “My father has heart disease, so I will likely suffer the same fate.” However, interestingly a study of identical twins published in 2016 shows that heredity is not the primary cause of most chronic diseases.

Genetics plus exposure accounts for the heredity factor. This means a person may have a genetic predisposition, but environmental factors and lifestyle choices are potential triggers that activate the disease process.

Mental and emotional health may also affect a person’s health span. For example, increased stress in a person’s life increases the release of cortisol by the adrenal glands. While an episodic response to stress is a protective mechanism, repeated and continued release connects to the onset of several disease processes, such as cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and other chronic conditions.

Life span vs. health span

Life span has increased with people living longer than ever, the health span has not improved. A study published in the NPJ Regenerative Medicine shows that, on average, people spend one-fifth of their life with a chronic illness. Cardiovascular and respiratory disease, diabetes, and cancer account for 80% of deaths related to chronic illness. Almost 60% of these deaths occur in people over 70.

The general belief is that aging results in disease and disability, but does it have to? Would healthy lifestyle choices make a difference? Do we have control and an option to extend the health span for ourselves and the overall population? The United Nations believes that to be true and have designated 2021 to 2030 as the Decade of Healthy Aging.

Tips to improve health span

While making healthy lifestyle choices should be a lifelong practice, there is always time to start making better choices in your everyday life. On the one hand, an inundation of fast-food and all-you-can-eat buffets contributes to the obesity pandemic. On the other hand, the health industry has exploded with natural health alternatives, including nutritional supplements, healthy diets, organic food, and a plethora of exercise programs. As a result, options abound on both ends of the health spectrum. The choice is yours.

Nutritional intake

A healthy balanced diet will fuel your body with energy for your cell growth.

VarietyHave a balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, leafy vegetables, and legumes.
Limit processed foodAvoid processed foods and saturated fats. Instead, enjoy essential fatty acids in nuts, seeds, and avocados to support brain health.
Avoid sugarLimit the intake of sugar and complex carbohydrates.
Get enough proteinAdequate protein intake will help maintain muscle mass.
The right proteinChoose lean meats such as poultry and fish, and avoid red meat. You can also find protein in dairy products and tofu.
Type of dietConsider the Mediterranean diet or the MIND diet.
Seek adviceConsider consulting a registered dietician to develop a plan for your nutritional needs.

Physical activity

Regular exercise is essential to your overall health and well-being. Always consult with your healthcare provider before beginning any new exercise routine.

WalkingA simple form of exercise, and you can do it with no added cost. Consider walking poles as you walk since they increase your energy expenditure.
Exercise frequencyIt’s ideal if you can exercise for 20 minutes every day. However, if that is difficult for you, you can start with three times a week.
Goal setting and trackingWearable tech devices such as an Apple Watch or Fitbit will help you to set goals and track your progress.
Exercise buddiesConsider exercising with a partner for company and to help you keep accountable.

Practice preventative health

Visit your healthcare provider regularly, to monitor your health and detect any problems early.

Regular reviewsHave a regular medication review with your healthcare practitioner or pharmacist to ensure you are on the proper medications.
Keep vaccines up-to-dateEnsure your immunizations and vaccinations are current.

Care for mental and emotional health

Caring for your mental and emotional health will help to manage stressors in your life.

IdentifyMake an inventory of factors that cause stress in your life and determine if you can remove or modify stressors.
RelaxationLearn and practice relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, prayer, yoga, or music therapy.
SleepGet adequate sleep of 7–9 hours a night to improve mental and physical health.
CounselingObtain a referral to a professional counselor to provide you with the tools and strategies to manage stress.

Improve cognitive health

Improve your cognitive health by exercising your brain.

LearnDon’t just sit in front of a television all day. Instead, read, exercise, and learn a new skill.
SocializeSocial connections are so essential to have and maintain. Conversely, social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of chronic illness, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and dementia.
ConnectConsider connecting with people in an activity you enjoy, a belief system you resonate with, or a cause you are passionate about.

Eliminate substance use

Substance use causes the intake of harmful toxins that can damage your body.

SmokingIf you smoke tobacco, cannabis, or vape, you need to consider abstaining. Contact your healthcare provider for a referral to a smoking cessation program.
AlcoholReduce or eliminate alcohol. Speak to your healthcare provider if you need a referral for support.

Medical advancements have increased the overall life span of individuals. However, improving the health span or length of time we enjoy good health and are free from a disease needs more focus. We can be proactive and start today by making healthier choices to protect our bodies. For more direction, consult with your healthcare provider.

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Martha S Sturgis
prefix 11 months ago
I think it is most important right now to work on health span. I live with chronic pain from spinal stenosis and most people I know my age (82) also suffer from chronic pain of some sort. It is debilitating and very difficult.