Healthy aging requires developing and maintaining the functional ability necessary to ensure well-being in life’s latest decades. Declines in functional capacity and increased chances of developing chronic diseases accompany aging. So figuring out how to preserve biological, physical, and mental health, or healthspan, as you grow older has become an integral part of the conversation around longevity and lifespan.
Recent research on healthspan explores how to maintain this good health and quality of life while extending lifespan. Environmental and modifiable factors can be leveraged to slow age-related processes and promote good health throughout life.
Here’s what you need to know about healthspan, and how to extend yours.
What is healthspan?
Healthspan is the duration of life spent in good health without chronic diseases or age-related disorders. Healthspan supports the maintenance of both health and functional capacity (the ability to perform activities of daily living). [1,2] Extending your healthspan means that you're able to spend more years doing the things that you love .
Geroscience is the field of research that studies healthspan
Research on healthspan falls within the field of geroscience, or the study of biological aging. Geroscience focuses on research for living longer with good health and quality of life. Rather than address each disease individually, geroscience studies the fundamental mechanisms of aging—such as chronic inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, and cellular senescence (old and damaged cells that are unable to divide properly)—to promote healthspan. [3,4]
How does healthspan differ from lifespan?
Healthspan is the period of life lived in generally good health without disease, whereas lifespan is the total number of years lived. Researchers estimate one-fifth of a person’s life will be lived with a chronic health condition. 
Lifespan has been increasing (with the average life expectancy now in the late 70s or early 80s for many countries), but healthspan has not. The increase in lifespan can be attributed to lower rates of childhood and late-life mortality and medical advances in the prevention and treatment of diseases. However, age-related illnesses and injuries persist, affecting healthspan during the later years of life. [5,6]
How is healthspan measured?
In research, healthspan is measured in terms of health-adjusted life expectancy (HALE). Life expectancy, years lived with disability, and premature death from disease are all factored into HALE calculations. HALE is often presented as a proportion of life expectancy at birth and 60 years of age. It is used to assess population-level health and well-being changes. [5,7]
On an individual basis, you can measure healthspan as the period of time spent physically active, cognitively sharp, and socially present without significant interference from disease or impairments. This is usually depicted as a descending curve. For some people, that may be a continuous streak until they reach life’s later decades.
Why does healthspan matter?
Aging contributes to chronic degenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) and age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease, and diabetes mellitus, all of which affect healthspan. 
Globally, chronic diseases are responsible for a majority of deaths and years lived with impairments. The rapidly aging world (and the US population) creates a significant economic and health burden. On an individual scale, aging and age related conditions affect a person's quality of life, mobility, independence, and mental wellbeing. While most people want to live longer, they also want to live longer in good health so they can be physically and cognitively present well into their 80s, 90s, and even 100s.
Improvements to life expectancy without addressing quality of life and health increase the gap between lifespan and healthspan. [5,6]
Slowing age-related processes can increase healthspan
With aging comes a progressive decline in physiological and cognitive function that contributes to reduced mobility and an increased risk of diseases and mortality. Aging is a significant contributor to chronic diseases and conditions, metabolic dysfunction, geriatric syndromes (such as cognitive impairment and incontinence), and frailty, which decreases the ability to recover from injury or illness. Figuring out how to slow down the biological process of aging is key to optimal longevity and healthspan research. [3,4]
Simply preventing one chronic disease at a time will not improve healthspan. Rather, researchers hope to prevent the onset of multiple chronic conditions by slowing the processes of aging. Delaying age-related diseases means targeting mechanisms that contribute to aging, such as inflammation, oxidative stress, and mitochondrial dysfunction. 
Factors that influence healthspan
Improving healthspan requires both large-scale changes geared towards improving population healthspan (think changes to healthcare systems, policy, and insurance) to small-scale lifestyle changes individuals can make in their daily lives. That’s because these lifestyle factors—such as diet and exercise—can be more readily modified to help slow aging and extend healthspan. 
The aging process is malleable: it can be accelerated or slowed by lifestyle factors. Poor diet, physical inactivity, and exposure to environmental contaminants (smoke and air pollution) accelerate aging. Alternatively, physical activity combined with healthy dietary patterns that are rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and oils can slow the aging process. 
Exercise has a significant impact on healthspan. Research shows that frequent physical activity can attenuate or prevent some aging-related functional declines. Benefits to healthspan can even be seen in individuals who increase their exercise later in life. [3,6]
Aerobic exercise is associated with reduced oxidative stress and inflammation. Physiological functions—such as cardiorespiratory fitness, glucose-insulin regulation, and neuromuscular, cardiac, vascular, and cognitive functions—are higher in individuals who are regularly physically active compared to those who are more sedentary. 
Greater levels of physical activity are associated with lower rates of age-related declines, notably reduced mobility, balance, motor coordination, and frailty. Specifically, resistance exercise preserves skeletal muscle mass, helping to prevent or reduce frailty and sarcopenia. 
While there is no specific healthspan diet at this time, research supports the adoption of a more plant-based diet, which contributes to lower levels of biomarkers associated with aging. Diets rich in plant protein and lower red meat intake help reduce levels of pro-aging hormones. The Mediterranean diet has been associated with maintaining motor, vascular, and cognitive function and may slow age-related declines. [1,3]
Specific foods, such as polyphenols, support physiological function despite aging. The polyphenol resveratrol protects against oxidative stress and may provide neuroprotective effects on certain aspects of Alzheimer’s disease. Other polyphenols — such as curcumin, fisetin, and catechins — have shown beneficial effects on cellular senescence and aging. 
Pollution, smoking, and socio-environmental factors (such as neighborhood, education, income, and access to food) can influence healthspan. Long-term exposure to pollution may shrink telomere length, which is associated with aging. And pollutants contribute to inflammatory pathways involved in metabolism and brain and heart function.
Smoking affects healthspan, accelerating aging and increasing the risk of chronic diseases. Some environmental factors (smoking) are modifiable. In contrast, others pollution and socio-environmental factors require more large-scale initiatives to affect healthspan. [10-13]
These lifestyle modifications can also improve healthspan by preserving brain health
Maintaining neurological and cognitive function as you age is essential for maintaining your quality of life. Dietary and physical activity interventions can support brain health and help ward off dementia and cognitive impairment. Greater adherence to a Mediterranean diet and physical activity may reduce the risk of dementia.
Conversely, poor metabolic health and inflammation contribute to the risk of dementia. Frequent physical activity is significantly associated with a decreased risk of brain function. Moreover, continued participation in physical activity despite severe cognitive impairment may help regain some of the lost cognitive function. [6,8,14]
InsideTracker can support your journey of extending your healthspan and living a longer healthier life
While extending your lifespan can add years to your life, extending your healthspan will help you enjoy and stay active in those later years. InsideTracker is designed to help you live healthier longer by providing you with personal health analysis and a data-driven wellness guide. No matter what your age is now, it’s never too early or too late to invest in yourself. Tracking your biological age with InsideTracker's InnerAge 2.0 provides unique insights into how your body is aging, recommendations to improve on those markers of aging, and motivation for lowering or maintaining a lower biological age than chronological age.
- Healthspan is the amount of life spent in good health without disease or age-related disorders. Lifespan is the duration of life lived.
- Geroscience is the area of research focused on the biological processes of aging, including healthspan.
- Addressing the fundamentals of aging that contribute to age-related diseases will improve healthspan.
- Physical activity and a diet full of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and oils support cognitive function and may improve healthspan.