Are you bored of the justification from some of your friends, when it comes to lifestyle choices, that “you only live once” or “enjoy it today, anyway you’ll die”?
Do you think they know the difference between Healthspan and Lifespan? Do you? Here is how can you make that knowledge work better for you…
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Lifespan, what we speak of 99.9% of the time when we talk about the length of time we are alive for, is just the time that our metabolic processes are running. So, by that definition, I might be in coma in a bed, wheelchair bound after a stroke, struggling through every day from series of chemotherapy and radiation sessions for cancer, or have lost my eyesight or use of my limbs because of diabetes… but I would still be considered to be adding to my Lifespan just because I am not dead.
Healthspan, which I request that you focus on as a better alternative, is the length of time that you will live for independently, free from any form of disability or disease.
What I define as the Healthspan-Lifespan-Gap is the period between the end of your Healthspan and the end of your Lifespan. It isn’t the easiest gap to be in!
The Difference that you Desire
Just by reading those descriptions you will have a pretty good idea of what it is that you want. It is what everyone wants. A long and healthy life i.e. a long Healthspan. Nobody wants a long life with disease or disability.
Why is Appreciating the Difference Critical?
The difference between Lifespan and Healthspan is a crucial one for you. For you to understand and internalize that difference is critical. You need to do this at the level of demonstrating (only to yourself) your appreciation of that difference on a daily basis. Your thoughts will drive your actions.
Now that you appreciate the importance of that distinction it will probably trouble you, like it troubled me, that our language around “length of life” is vague. So, henceforth, I encourage you to use the word Healthspan – and to mean it. If someone gives you a quizzical look, please explain the difference to them.
Not focusing on it makes your decisions, small and big ones, sub-optimal relative to life-time optimization.
Action and Inaction at a Global Level
An emphasis on the concept of Healthspan is as recent as only 30 years ago. It was formalized to attempt to understand the differences in Lifespan between countries. However, despite three decades having gone by, there is almost non-existent appreciation of the distinction in terminology usage at a grassroots level. (My ‘anti-establishment’ views on why that is so, I will describe and explain another day!)
Improvements in Healthspan and Lifespan
Aggregate statistics over a 15-year period can both hide and tell stories. Here is some data from the World Health Organization that I present to show improvements in Healthspan and Lifespan between 2000 and 2015 for 183 countries.
Other than Syria and Iraq that have reduced the Healthspan and Lifespan their populations have experienced, all other countries have improved both measures. The best improvers are some African countries that started off in the year 2000 with low levels of Lifespan. At the other end, what I always find admirable is the continuous improvement that Japan can show. For a populous country with the highest life expectancy in the year 2000, Japan continued to improve both Healthspan and Lifespan for its citizens over the next 15 years.
(Note: I have used ‘life expectancy’ and ‘lifespan’ interchangeably here when, in fact, the former refers to a population and the latter to an individual)
Choices, Decisions and Actions that YOU can Take
Anyway, never mind the rest of the world, or your own government’s annoying policies, what can you do to ensure that you get the most out of your life? Let me provide some structure to the thought process you could employ to answer that question?
If you look at the possibilities of long and short periods for Lifespan and Healthspan, there are 4 combinations.
- The combination (Short Lifespan, Long Healthspan) is not mathematically possible since you cannot be dead and then be healthy!
Of the other three,
- it is the Long Healthspan (automatically implying a Long Lifespan) that is desirable
- a Short Lifespan (and Healthspan) is unfortunate. Whether by accident, or because of uncontrollable illnesses, or controllable lifestyle factors the fact is that the happy and healthy life is short.
- a Long Lifespan with a Short Healthspan is the most unfortunate combination because it typically happens because of avoidable lifestyle choices. In the majority of cases, especially in urban settings around the world, whether in rich or poor countries, the tendency is to not focus on Healthspan. Lifestyle choices most citizens make until their fifth decade of life lead to the development of mostly avoidable health complications. This period is followed by many years of being kept alive with pharmaceutical aids and medical technology.
If you live in a system that pays for you to be kept alive by state funds, like in many European countries, you are still going to suffer during the Healthspan-Lifespan-Gap. If you saved enough money to pay for your own care during the Healthspan-Lifespan-Gap, it will still not really stop your suffering during the Healthspan-Lifespan-Gap. The source of the financing does not matter – you will suffer in the time you spend in the Healthspan-Lifespan-Gap. Mind the gap!
Please Note: I am neither encouraging nor discouraging euthanasia to minimize the gap, once in the gap; instead, my point is to urge that you delay your entry into the gap in the first place, for as long as possible.
Are you an HSX or HSm?
I define people on a simple and simplistic spectrum between two end.
HSX = Healthspan Maximizer = you make each day count in as many ways as you possibly can towards improving the quality of your health for the long run i.e. maximizing the length of your Healthspan. I am an HSX.
HSm = Healthspan Minimizer = you live your life without much thought to your physical, mental, emotional or spiritual health
In reality, you are likely to be somewhere in-between, hopefully more of an HSX than a HSm.
[Read: Limiting labels]
Biological v Chronological age
Your chronological age is directly related to your Lifespan – the mapping of the measures is direct. If you die at the age of 50, your chronological age and Lifespan are both 50!
Your biological age is under your control, as is your Healthspan. Reducing or reversing your biological age increases your Healthspan. Here the relationship is an inverse one!
Impact on Lifespan
When your behavior is like that of an HSm, you will be reducing your Healthspan and, since medical technology can only keep you alive for a while, you will be reducing your Lifespan too. And if you can be kept alive with the help of medication and other procedures, the Healthspan-Lifespan-Gap, remember, is a terrible place to be in. The short-term and long-term side-effects of medication, the quality of sleep, rest and recovery, the limitation on your movements for exercise or simple fun or wild pleasure – all these will make your being in the gap, not so cool!
On the other hand, when your behavior is like that of an HSX, you will automatically be increasing your Lifespan even though your focus is on increasing your Healthspan.
When your friends encourage you to “chillax, just enjoy having some of this, it won’t kill you” they are typically being willfully blind to the Healthspan-Lifespan-Gap that they are likely to fall into and be stuck in for a very long time.
The occasional slip in your lifestyle choices, or the one-off-cheat under temptation, might, arguably, even be good for you at that time (an instantaneous reduction in stress on your emotional health). Just be conscious of the fact that you have strayed off your path of HSX and that you need to navigate yourself back onto it with self-compassion. None of us is perfect!
Time, Money and other Constraints
Neither time nor money ought to be a constraint to be a Healthspan Maximiser (HSX) for anyone who is reading this. Armed with an intricate understanding of the Wellness Tree, a focus on ROTI, and a library of knowledge, it should be far from difficult. Of course, just like the lady who guides you on Googlemaps, a mentor can make the path easier to follow. Also, remember, the ‘health’ in Healthspan is not just about physical health. Your mental, emotional and spiritual health are to be considered in the same manner. And, what you consider constraints might actually be exactly what you need to be a more efficient HSX! More on that in a few days.
[Here is more about Saying No to Yourself]
Dealing with your ‘well-wishers’
The next time your friend or family try to tempt you to engage in something you know cannot be good for you, leave them puzzled with the response, “It is better that I don’t, I’m HSX Positive”.
Be conscious of the Healthspan-Lifespan-Gap. Mind the gap!
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.