Being a human is quite the accomplishment. No other creature on this planet has a brain that can ponder anything from a snappy social media caption to the solution for world hunger, a body that can either dance or swing a hammer (maybe both if you’re performing in STOMP!), and a spirited social life full of complex relationships and love. And thanks to human development of science and technology, we can now each be a human for longer. Our evolutionary ancestors were at the mercy of nature until the end of their short lives, but modern science has extended the average human lifespan in the United States to 79.3 years.
While our lifespans are increasing, recent research by medical doctors is placing new emphasis on something called healthspan. The precise definition of a healthspan is being determined, but here’s one way to think of it: your healthspan is the period in your life that you’re free of age-linked, life threatening conditions like heart attacks, chronic pain, Alzheimer's disease, or type-2 diabetes. According to the WHO, the average healthspan is around 63 years. We’re living until we’re 80 years old but we’re healthy only until we’re 60 - as it stands now, up to 20% of our lives are spent unhealthily.
While most humans no longer have to worry about dying of food poisoning from eating rotten wooly mammoth meat or getting eaten by a leopard before we even get a grey hair (like our early ancestors did), the security of our civilized lifestyles has resulted in a serious discrepancy between our lifespan and our healthspan. Instead of walking long distances, we travel by sitting down in cars and planes. Instead of using our bodies to plough fields or hunt game, we can swing by any food truck or vending machine as soon as we get the urge for a bite. And as we live longer than ever before, we contend with age-linked diseases and neurological decay unknown to our ancestors. Human development in technology and society has given us immense security and convenience, but at the cost of our potential healthspan.
Luckily, growing evidence suggests that simple, common-sense choices like eating a balanced diet, exercising, and avoiding cigarettes and alcohol are some of the surest ways to promote long healthspans and deter disease. Moreover, we can engage in other deliberate practices that push against our modern environment. In the face of nutritional abundance, intermittent fasting optimizes our body’s health by triggering our evolutionary adaption to “feast-or-famine” conditions. Engaging with the way that we moved and played as children - crawling, rolling, hanging - can slow down the pain and injury that our adult world inflicts on us. So, we can look back to our early history - as individuals and as a species - for inspiration in promoting enduring lifespans.
What a time to be alive. By promoting our healthspan, we can make the most of it.