We are Living Longer, But are We Living Healthier?

We are living longer lives compared than our ancestors did. In fact, a famous study showed that since 1840, we have increased our life expectancy by 40 years! Unfortunately, a recent epidemiological study – a study that looks at patterns of disease – published in the Lancet, indicates that although we are living longer, we are not necessarily living these extra years healthier.

How Researchers Determined This
The study compiled data on 306 diseases for 188 countries. The researchers calculated Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALY)—years of healthy life lost due to disabilities or disease.  Then, they compared DALY to Healthy Life Expectancy (HALE) – years living healthily, also known as “healthspan”. From this vast data they found that globally, life expectancy increased by 6.2 years from 1990-2013. However HALE only increased by 5.4 years. The United States did not compare so well against global numbers as DALY and HALE only roughly increased by 3.5 and 2.4 years respectively.

Ideally, we want HALE to outpace DALY, but these numbers show that the recent increase in life expectancy has been greater than the increase in healthy life expectancy. There are various campaigns, such as the Healthspan Campaign, that highlight the issue of increasing our HALE years more.

What This Means for Us
We are living longer because modern medicine has been able to treat disappearing disorders like smallpox, residual disorders like STIs, and persistent disorders (certain cancers) better. It is less effective, however, at handling new epidemic disorders that severely reduce HALE. One example is Type 2 Diabetes caused by the increase in obesity. Modern medicine can’t do much about obesity, which is often due to poor lifestyle choices of the individual.

What You Can Do to Increase Your HALE
In most cases, the best way to deal with any disease is by preventing it. There is a wealth of research on what you can do to live healthier and increase your HALE. Increasing exercise has been shown to improve HALE, even in moderate doses, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. Healthy lifestyle choices, such as healthier diets can also help protect key systems like our arteries as we age.

Marcel Davidse

Marcel Davidse was an intern with the Healthy Aging Project in the fall of 2016, and graduated in December 2016 from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.