The concept of a long and healthy life is the stuff of legends. Through history, healers, shamans, doctors and snake oil salesman have been willing to tell you (or sell you) the secret to longevity and optimal health — for a price.
In the modern era, we call this healthspan. Healthspan is the combination of a long life and a healthy life. It's a different and important shift from merely thinking about lifespan. The goal, after all, is not just to live long, but to live long and keep your health.
Healthspan has been in the scientific literature for about 20 years, though prior to the year 2000 there were only 14 articles on the topic. Today, there are over 1,000. Yet today all the healthspan trends in the United States are heading in the wrong direction: we are living shorter, less healthy lives.
Over the last 50 years, something has changed in the course of human health. Chronic disease, including diabetes, cancer, heart disease and dementia have exploded, as have inflammatory diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia and chronic pain. What's going on here? Has the genetic makeup of the human race changed that much in the last 50 years? Of course not.
What has changed is how we approach four specific areas of our life:
The food and drink we consume
The way we move
How we sleep
How we care (or don't care) for our mental health
Thankfully, maximizing healthspan is not a secret only available to the rich and famous. It does, however, tend to get lost in the noise of the latest fad diet, the latest high intensity workout, or a specialized mattress or mindfulness technique. Let’s tease each of these apart and find the practical steps all of us can follow/do.
Healthspan and Nutrition
I propose we replace the word diet with nutrition. No one stays on ‘x’ diet for their entire life. We can, however, maintain a nutritional regimen that allows us to enjoy food and maximize healthspan. Isn’t that what we all want?
Eat 50% of all meals as simply prepared (raw, steamed, baked or sautéed) vegetables. Deep fried potatoes don’t count. The most inexpensive way to start is with a variety of frozen vegetables.
Maintain 12 hours per day of no food intake to allow your body to repair itself and focus on healing vs. digestion and breakdown of food.
Healthspan and Movement
Movement in our culture has been replaced with the word exercise, which is unfortunate since those centenarians in The Blue Zones did not get to be 100 years old by going to a gym three times a week. They did it by staying active, every day, and consistently exerting themselves, maintaining mobility and minimizing loss of muscle mass.
Since few of us are paying for gym membership fees these days here is what you can do:
Walk briskly, preferably outside and with a partner for 30 minutes every day. The combination of walking in nature and conversing with a partner is a triple bonus for your health.
Office workers schedule 15 minute breaks every 90 minutes to move. Everyone with a calendar program can block off your own time. Call it a personal break, conference call or whatever you want. That makes for an hour a day of movement (plus lunch). Do it today. No one is stopping you except you.
Work your core. Do five minutes of body weight squats (deep knee bends for us older folks!), lunges or planks. They will pay huge dividends over time.
Healthspan and Sleep
We'll sleep when we're dead, right? Actually, no! Sleep is not optional. It is required for your body to repair itself (deep sleep), build memories, and maintain mental acuity (REM sleep). Over the last 20 years, we have learned more about the link between sleep and healthspan than in all of history.
Here are some short guidelines:
Be in bed for eight hours a night to sleep. Period. Stop. Make it happen. Set a going to bed time and stick to it.
Put down the cell phone and avoid all electronics at least one hour prior to bedtime. This is critical especially for children.
Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and alcohol 3-4 hours close to bedtime. Both will dramatically impact the quality and quantity of your sleep.
Mental resiliency and Healthspan
Mental resiliency has become a hot topic in recent years. We have come to understand more over time about the connection between maintaining an agile mind and overall health. This is has been especially true in our western society, even before COVID, where we have rising levels of stress and social isolation.
Several key concepts have coalesced around maintaining mental resiliency:
Stay mentally active and challenge yourself as you age. New languages, learning an instrument or deeply immersing yourself in learning (or teaching) something new engages your whole brain.
Strong social connections are essential. Working to maintain and expand them over time requires commitment.
Being able to decompress your mind through meditation, deep breathing, prayer, yoga or Tai Chi helps to quiet the noise we all have rattling around in our mind.
The inter-connectedness of healthspan
So there you have 12 practical things you can do to maximize your healthspan and longevity. Of course, all of these are interconnected. Nutrition impacts all facets of your body and mind. Exercise helps to prepare yourself for better sleep and lowers your risk for dementia over time.
Right about now you may be thinking, all of this is great but I work 60 hours a week, have three kids and can’t afford to buy all organic groceries. The good news is you do not have to do that. Pick one in each category and start with five minutes a day. The next week increase it to 10 minutes. Does it really cost you more to stop drinking sweetened beverages and replace it with water? Small steps, consistently done will create dramatic results over time.
The concept of maximizing healthspan and longevity are not only for those able to afford luxuries. It is available to each of us who understands how the decisions we make every day impacts us long term. The good news is it is never too late to take the first step to improve your health and well being.
Are you ready to get started?