Health Span versus Life Span

The lifespan of most in the world has gradually gone up and up over the last 70 years. This is largely due to advances in medical diagnostics and treatment. What has become increasingly apparent however, is the quality of those extra years for many is not great.

What is the point of living longer if you are not fit enough or strong enough to do anything with those extra years of life? The phrase ‘Health Span’ has thus been coined. It denotes the aim of some to focus on a series of actions and behaviours designed to encourage good health into old age, rather than just focusing on extending life span – the number of years we live. By focusing on what will keep you fitter, stronger and healthier into old age, will no doubt help you live longer too.

The sort of behaviours we are talking about are not rocket science. Maintaining an active lifestyle, consuming a healthy diet, and avoiding stress and known unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking to excess. Add to this good sleep hygiene (8 hour plus ideally) and there is no reason why most of us shouldn’t be looking at a long, healthy and happy life. Studying the habits of ‘Blue Zone’ populations where they have the highest percentage of centenarians, you could also add in activities of service to others that give purpose to life and a sense of community. For a deep dive into the mind-set and habits of a living example, I cannot recommend this Rich Roll podcast highly enough, where he interviews the Centenarian Mike Fermont. He is a total inspiration.

So if it is this easy, why is our health service on it’s knees and stretched to breaking point? Partly it’s funding which is not part of the scope of this blog. The other part of the equation is the health model itself. You go to the GP for a chat (if you can get an appointment) and you say you want to stop smoking – patches are prescribed. You get some bloods back saying your cholesterol is high – statins are prescribed. Your chest is tight and wheezy for more than a few months – steroid inhalers and bronchodilators. This is what doctors are taught to do. You complain to your doctor about your aching back – pain killers and NSAIDs prescribed. Diagnoses – drug. Some GP’s have an interest in lifestyle and how it impacts health, but few have enough clinic time to coach their clients what to do.

This system in my opinion has trained people to seek a prescription drug-based solution to most problems as a first line of attack. 20% of adults are taking 10 or more prescription drugs every day. 36% are taking 5 or more prescriptions and a staggering 90% taking at least one prescription drug every day. This approach to health problems is not restricted to the physical. Nearly a fifth of the population need anti-depressants to function on a day-to-day basis. Interestingly, the mechanism by which these drugs work has long been thought to be linked with boosting serotonin levels. This has recently been totally disproved so we now have no idea how one of our most commonly prescribed drugs actually works!  An additional 10% of our adults between the ages of 16 – 24 are using recreational drugs to either boost or supress their emotions. One of the most sobering stats that reflects the state of our nation’s health and how rapidly it is degenerating, are obesity levels in our young. In 10 – 11-year-olds pre pandemic the figure was around 35%. Post pandemic this has increased to an astonishing 41%! A gain of 6% in just 2 years. With obesity being one of the key risk factors in COVID infection outcomes, this is a somewhat worrying ‘side effect’ of how the nation’s health has been negatively impacted by the way the pandemic has been handled here in the UK. The health trajectory for these children has likely been permanently altered. As a nation, we need to get a grip and we need to do it fast.

I hesitate to mention drugs that are specifically being researched and developed for the purpose of longevity. They do exist, the 2 front runners currently being Metformin and Rapamycin. My hesitancy is because of all the stats I have just listed in the paragraphs before. If, as some suggest, these drugs could extend life by 10 – 15%, what is the point if your legs are so weak you can’t get out a chair or your heart is being regulated by a myriad of drugs, but you don’t have the fitness, energy or inclination to play with your grandchildren? These drugs are not yet licenced for the purpose of longevity but if / when they are, I fear they will be misused. We know how to live longer already. Take regular moderate exercise and your chances of dying from any cause are reduced by 35%. If exercise was a tablet, it would have been labelled a wonder drug with those statistics!

What else can you do to extend your life? Stop eating loads of red meat especially rubbishy processed stuff. According to the British Medical Journal, there’s a huge volume of data that associates it with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers including those of the colon and rectum, and premature death.

It’s hard I know. The pace of life. The stress of life. Advertising. Government policy that permeates how we view our health, our control ….. big pharma …. processed and takeaway foods etc etc etc. But you can turn your health around and improve it positively, if you are prepared to challenge your own thinking and put in some effort. Here are my top tips. Choose the order that suits you but this is what I suggest as you can’t you do it all at once. If you drink too much or smoke, sort that first. If you take recreational drugs, stop; you may need help with this. The biggest bang for your buck after these changes will be exercise followed by diet. When you get control of one area of your life however, the other areas become easier to deal with. One step at a time.

  1. Get a health check with your GP. Height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and if you can swing it some dietary bloods to see how you iron and vitamin D levels are doing. Make a commitment to your GP that you want to improve your lifestyle and health. They will be impressed and they will get behind you (hopefully). Get the ok from them to start exercising.
  2. Get some tech. Get a watch that monitors heart rate. When doing aerobic exercise, aim to keep your heart rate at a safe and beneficial number. For most, this will be 180 – your age – 5 if you are new to exercise. For more info on this, investigate the work of Dr Maffetone.
  3. Exercise aerobically every day. Swim, bike, walk, run, cross trainer. Your body is designed to move. You may have to start with only a few minutes a day, a few times a week, but over time, build this up to 30 minutes, every day. That would be 3.5 hours of exercise a week …. A great start. Your aerobic fitness is key to everything else.
  4. Once you are doing that, add in some intensity. Swap out 2 of your aerobic sessions for some HIT training. (high intensity training). 5 building up to 10, 45 second hard efforts with a good warm up and cool down. This will train your anaerobic energy system and stimulate testosterone and growth hormone. Your heart rate will go above your (180 – age – 5) number but only for a short period of time.
  5. Once you are comfortable with this, swap out one more aerobic session for a weight training session. This is great for strength and slowing down sarcopenia (the loss of muscle tissue due to aging).
  6. 3.5 hours a week made up of 4 aerobic, 2 HIT and one strength is a great foundation.  7 hours a week is better! There is no need for more than 7 hours however. Think about some longer (not faster) aerobic sessions and maybe think about doing a couple of double days each week when you add in Pilates or Yoga. This will really help with posture, strength and relaxation.
  7. Diet is a whole can of worms …. No pun intended. As already mentioned, ultra-high processed foods, especially red meats, should be dramatically reduced ASAP. As a broad rule of thumb, a Mediterranean diet has consistently shown to be the best for health and longevity. The most recent study suggests a reduction in the risk of death by 8%. You don’t need meat or fish in your diet if you plan a whole food diet right, but a couple of portions a week would be considered normal in Mediterranean cultures and may be a good thing to add back in, especially if you are over the age of 65 and have been following exclusively a wholefood vegan diet. A bit of wine, usually red, is also normal in a healthy Mediterranean diet. I wouldn’t over analyse calories unless you find it helpful. Water rich whole foods have a lot of fibre and are very filling. You will struggle to eat too much healthy food. Aim for a variety of fruits, veg, nuts, seeds and beans. The more colourful your plate of food, the better. Go organic if you can afford it but local trumps organic for nutrition. An organic orange that’s made it’s way around the globe may be free of pesticides, but it will also be largely free from nutrition! Take extra care washing your food if it’s non organic and prioritise getting organic fruits / veg that are part of the dirty dozen.

Lets see how the evidence around longevity drugs unravels in the years ahead but get the basics in place first. If you go all in with the diet and cut out meat and dairy completely, keep an eye on iron, Vitamin D and B12 levels. You may need to supplement. Forever Daily would be a good place to start.

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