During the last century the average life span has increased from 50 to 80 years. A whopping 30-year difference! Better sanitation along with antibiotics, vaccines, and other advances allow us to survive diseases that killed many of us in childhood 100 years ago. Even with the covid pandemic reducing the span by 3 years we are still light years ahead of our forebears. Unfortunately, healthspans do not always match longevity. Healthspans are defined as the period of life that is free of chronic disease or disability. Right now, an American might expect that their last 15 years could be lived with a serious disease. Aging is a large risk factor for cancer and heart disease, not to mention Alzheimer’s and dementia. For years, we’ve been focused on treating specific diseases which can extend our life but not the quality of that life. Now, medicine is starting to focus on extending your healthy life not just the length of your life.
The pillars of aging include the aging of individual cells, stress responses, inflammation, and DNA damage. The variations in these can mostly be the result of environmental differences, but our genes play about 25%. Some people just age slower than others. Some who age faster will suffer more from disability and disease. Scientists are studying ways to clear out cells that no longer divide but linger in the body. These are called senescent cells. But these studies are years away from giving us any treatment, so what can we do in the meantime?
Of course, we all know the four basic steps to better health. They are nutrition, sleep, exercise, and social connections. All are equally important for good health. These steps alone can give you a healthier 10 years because they moderate the biology of aging, similar to how regular moderate exercise can prevent type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But one of the best ways to extend our health span is through regular checkups. Think of it as preventative maintenance for your body! Watching cholesterol levels and blood pressure along with lean body mass and bone density can go a long way. So, there is no magic bullet but if you haven’t seen a doctor in more than a year it might be a good idea to make an appointment.
Kathleen Weaver-Zech and Dean’s Team Chicago