Healthy Aging in a Modern World: Maximizing Your Health Span

September 27th, 2023 | Viewpoint


Among the greatest modern-age achievements is the extension of human longevity. A child born in the U.S. in 1923 was expected to live to age 56, while a child born in 2023 is expected to live to age 79. That’s an amazing gain of more than 20 years of life in one century! Although there are variances by gender, race, income, and ethnicity, years of life have been added in every population sector in our country and around the globe. Almost all of us can expect to live longer than our ancestors.

The truly wonderful news about aging is not simply that we have added more years to our lives, but that we can add more life to our years. Statistics simply look at life span—the count of years we are alive. Increasingly though, science is interested in health span—the number of years we are active and involved. How do we increase our health span as we age, and what is healthy aging?

Healthy aging is a continuous process of growing older while maintaining physical, emotional, and social wellbeing and adapting to change. Factors that influence healthy aging include genetics, physical and social environment, diet, exercise, access to health care, and personal behavior, each of which affects our minds and bodies. Traditional health care providers and systems naturally focus on the factors they can influence, such as the detection and management of disease states. Traditional health care providers, however, do not control what makes each of us feel healthy however.

What do Older Adults Tell Us about Healthy Aging?

As a society, we tend to believe that healthy aging is the absence of disease or infirmity, and we associate aging with a decline in both. However, a 2022–23 McKinsey Health Institute study asked more than 21,000 people age 55+ in over 20 countries to rank the factors they believed mattered most to overall health. Access to health care providers and treatments did not rank high. Among the top-scoring factors were having a purpose in life and a balanced stress level; the ability to be physically active and participate in learning; and having meaningful social connections and financial security.

In 2021, the American Association of Retired People asked older Americans for their views on healthy aging. In this study, responders emphasized access to traditional health care as a building block of good health. But they did not see the presence of chronic disease or disabling conditions as necessarily reflecting poor overall health. Rather, they believed they were capable of adapting to chronic disease and achieving a high-quality of life simultaneously.

These results indicate that what people define as healthy aging is determined less by traditional health and more by life-participation metrics. This is the definition of health span. It doesn’t mean that chronic health conditions are unimportant. They are—to the extent that they affect functional measures of health such as the ability to learn, be involved in activities, and continue to develop as a person.

Humans have an incredible ability to adapt to circumstances over time. We are resilient. To age well is to understand that our bodies and the resources we are given are tools. If we treat them with care, we can maximize function and involvement over our longer life spans.

The groundwork for healthy aging starts at whatever age you are at this moment. The sooner you begin, the better the path ahead.

By Margaret Franckhauser, MS, MPH, RN

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