For some time now, scientists have conducted research that focused on how to increase a person’s life span—when it comes to longevity studies. But, new research is finding out that instead of the lifespan, we should be paying attention to the “healthspan.” What this means is that paying attention to how a healthy a person is, in old age is more important than simply counting the number of years.
According to an epidemiologist (a doctor who studies diseases in the community) at the University of Illinois at Chicago, S. Jay Olshansky, the medical research professionals have been successful at discovering factors that lengthen the number of years the average human lives. In his research paper, published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, Olshansky explains that scientists should put the focus on what he calls “the red zone”—the time during which a person is alive and healthy.
Olshansky believes that humans have attained the upper limit, regarding longevity, extending the average lifespan (in developed countries) from around 45 to 50 years of age, at the turn of the 20th century to much longer, today. In fact, health conditions such as clean water and improved sanitation, helped to decrease mortality (death) rates dramatically. Today around 96% of the babies born in developed countries will live to age 50 or older; 75% of all deaths will occur between ages 65 and 95.
Professor Olshansky, an expert in the field of statistics impacting death rates, says that there is much controversy over whether the lifespan of a human can continue to increase—indefinitely.
“There’s been a lot of focus in the news lately about what is the maximum human lifespan, with some researchers claiming that it has the potential to be infinite, but there is a biologically based limit imposed largely by the way in which our bodies are designed, and it can be expressed mathematically,” Olshansky said.
“There is reason to be optimistic about future breakthroughs in aging biology, if pursued, could allow humanity to live healthier longer,” Olshansky said. “Some experts suggest that if death rates plateau at older ages, lifespans may continue to increase. This latter view has been challenged by the fact that an unrealistically high number of people would have to survive to age 105 (estimated 262,200) just for one person to exceed the world record for longevity by one year to 123 years.”
The reason an extremely long lifespan may not be very desirable, is the fact that as we age, disease and disability risk increase as well. In fact, in a recent documentary of people over age 100, most reported that after age 90, their health began to spiral downward.
“You don’t want to live to be over 100 years old if the last 20 years of your life are spent in pain and sickness,” Olshansky said. “Ideally, you want to compress the years of decay and disease — what I call the ‘red zone’ — into as few as possible at the very end of life. We should not continue to pursue life extension without considering the health consequences of living longer lives.”
Today, clinical research studies that have been approved by the FDA and the American Federation for Aging Research are targeted at conducting studies on aging for seniors. The field is called Geroscience.
“This will be the only way science can push through the biological barriers to life extension that exists today,” he said. “Life extension should no longer be the primary goal of medicine when applied to people over age 65 — the principal outcome and most important metric of success should be extension of the healthspan.”
Olshansky explains that despite longevity-related progress, there are many issues that remain unresolved. “Not everyone has access to health care, nutritious food, opportunities to get exercise and education that contribute to long lifespans,” he said.