Date: May 1st, 2012
Most people know what lifespan is—the average length of life of a species, often measured within a sub-population like “Americans” or “women.” Essentially—how long we live. But few have even heard of healthspan. Dictionary.com defines it as the “period of one’s life during which one is generally healthy and free from serious disease.” Essentially—how long we live in good health.
But a search of many of the other leading on-line dictionaries for healthspan, including Merriam-Webster and The Free Dictionary, returned “word not found” results. And as this article is typed, the page is riddled with spell-check marks because Microsoft Office doesn’t recognize healthspan as a real word.
A Google search for lifespan returns 36.6 million hits—but healthspan only returns 1.5 million. Similarly, a search for news on lifespan yields 2,050 recent articles while healthspan only turns up 17. In an aging nation facing an inevitable surge in age-related chronic diseases and conditions, we all need to be thinking about healthspan.
The Common Denominator
Wouldn’t we all like life at 80 to feel more like life at 60? To reach “old age” in better health and with fewer of the diseases and disabilities that we seem to inevitably face as we grow older? Scientists have made impressive progress in the understanding of human aging, and excitingly now generally agree that aging can in fact be slowed. They also believe that science is on the cusp of major breakthroughs that will increase the number of years that we live in good health—extending healthspan.
And yet, just as few seem to know what healthspan is, even fewer seem to recognize the value of fighting diseases before they start. The value of figuring out what causes the chronic inflammation that is linked to cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease alike; how responses to stress can accelerate aging and risk of disease; and how the decline in stem cells contributes to osteoporosis, joint degeneration, and more.
This is why the Alliance for Aging Research is leading a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of this research and how critical it is that we start turning our focus to healthspan.
The Healthspan Campaign
The Healthspan Campaign is focused on raising awareness and changing how research is conducted and funded. A prominent group of international scientists, including four Nobel Laureates and two winners of the National Medal of Science, have all endorsed a research agenda that identifies a range of projects within those categories of inflammation, cell replacement and repair, and stress responses, that they believe will produce significant breakthroughs in the near-term—the next 3 to 10 years.
With proper funding and focus that is. We currently barely invest in efforts to understand that one risk factor that is the common denominator of many of the diseases we fear, fight, and struggle to avoid as we age. Only 1% of the National Institutes of Heath’s overall budget goes to fundamental research on aging. Instead we look at the diseases one-at-a-time without effectively exploring the key to treating and even preventing these diseases.
This is bad news for our health care system and economy. The average 75-year-old lives with three conditions at once. The cost of this could cripple our economy as the Baby Boom generation triggers a Silver Tsunami of disease, disability, death, and sky-rocketing health care.
By better understanding aging, the common denominator of most disease, scientists could make enormous progress in preventing and fighting disease.