Lifespan and Health Span

By Arvind M. Dhople, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Florida Tech

Any time you open your computer these days, you are bombarded with advertisements that pop up trying to convince you of the power of a pill that make you live longer or a cream that will help to revive your youthful vigor and appearance.  The search for ways to stop or reverse the aging process is a near-obsession in popular culture.  The likelihood of discovering a scientifically proven “anti-aging” elixir is slim, but researchers believe their work will reveal ways to improve a person’s ability to live a longer, healthier life.  They express these goals in terms of “lifespan” and ‘health span,” respectively.

                Lifespan is the length of life for an organism.  For instance, if you live to age 99, that would be your lifespan.  Maximal lifespan is the maximum number of years of life observed in a specific population.  It differs from species to species.  The maximum recorded lifespan for human, reported in 2020, was 122.5 years for females (from France; U.S., 119.3 years) and 116.1 years for males (from Japan; U.S., 115 years).

                Lifespan is a common measurement in aging research.  That’s because it is clear-cut and easy to measure – an organism is either alive or dead.  Scientists look for factors such as genes, environment, and behavioral traits (including diet) that may contribute to an organism’s lifespan.  Altering a factor to see if it changes lifespan can provide evidence about whether or not that specific factor is important for aging.  If the life of the animal with the modified gene activity is longer or shorter, then the gene probably does play a role in lifespan.

                The ability to withstand disease could also be central to lifespan.  Studies of exceptionally long-lived people are helping to establish patterns of health decline and increased disease (called morbidity) with old age.  For example, do health problems start around the same age in all people and expand over extra years of life for the long-lived, or are the problems delayed, occurring closer to the end of life among exceptional agers?  Evidence from a Danish longitudinal study of 92-to-100-year-olds found that health problems seem to be delayed, appearing closer to the end of life.  This is not a certain outcome, but in many studies, the average centenarian seems to be in better health than the average 80-year-old.  However, living to 100 does not mean never having any health issues. 

                In the “New England Centenarian Study”, researchers have developed three categories for their long-lived participants.  They are characterized as “survivors,” “delayers,” or “escapers,” depending on whether they have survived a life-threatening disease, delayed a serious health problem until much later in life, and/or escaped any serious health events.

                Scientists used to think that long life was a good indicator of health span, or years of good health and function.  However, some experiments, particularly in mice, demonstrate significant improvements in health, without actually increasing lifespan.  For example, scientists examining the effects of the wine-derived compound (resveratrol) in mice on a normal diet found the compound positively influenced the health of the mice – resveratrol-treated mice had better bone health, heart function, strength, vision, coordination, and cholesterol than the control group.  But, resveratrol did not increase lifespan.  (Lifespan was increased, however, in mice on a high-fat diet supplemented with resveratrol.)

                Most of what scientists know about factors that can contribute to a long lifespan and health span is based on research in animal models.  Understanding how to extend health span – apart from its impact on longevity – is a growing focus of many studies, and for good reason.  Imagine a society where a majority of people live to be 100, but along with the added years comes considerably more physical decline.  While there is still a place for lifespan research, health span research holds promise for revealing ways to delay or prevent disease and disability so that we can live healthier longer.