The results are in and it’s good news – healthspan is increasing

New study shows healthspan, the number of healthy years a person lives is, on average, increasing – even for people with common chronic conditions.

There have been advances in healthcare over recent decades that mean many people with chronic health conditions are living longer with increasing healthspan, according to a new study published in PLOS Medicine by Holly Bennett of Newcastle University, and others.

Longevity.Technology: Lifespan is often associated with longevity research but healthspan less so; perhaps that’s because it’s more nebulous – after all, alive or dead is a pretty binary decision (The Walking Dead, notwithstanding), but one person’s healthy is another person’s sub-par. There isn’t much point focusing on extending life unless we are also improving the quality of that life – more years in good health, free from serious disease. The frontline approaches – diet, exercise, more sleep, less stress – should be backed up with personalised, preventative strategies that prevent, slow or even halt age-related diseases. This will not only give us more happy, healthy years, but have enormous economic and social consequences for us all.

The researchers started from the point that previous research has examined the improvements in healthy years if different health conditions are eliminated, but often with cross-sectional data, or for a limited number of conditions. In the new study, researchers wanted to determine whether this extension to life involves an increase in years with or without disability. The team analysed data from two large population-based studies of people aged 65 or over in England. The studies, the Cognitive Function and Agding Studies (CFAS I and II) involved baseline interviews with 7,635 people in 1991-1993 and with 7,762 people in 2008-2011, with two years of follow-up in each case.

For both healthy people and those with health conditions, the average years of disability-free life expectancy (DFLE) increased from 1991 to 2011. Overall, men gained 4.6 years in life expectancy (95% CI: 3.7 – 5.5 years, p<0.001)) and 3.7 years in DFLE (95% CI: 2.7 – 4.8, p<0.001)). Men with conditions including arthritis, coronary heart disease, stroke and diabetes gained more years in DFLE than years with disability. The greatest improvements in DFLE in men were seen for those with respiratory difficulties and those living post-stroke [1].

Between 1991 and 2011, women experienced an increase in life expectancy at age 65 years of 2.1 years (95% CI: 1.1- 3.0 years, p<0.001), and an increase in DFLE of 2.0 years (95% CI: 1.0 – 2.9 years, p<0.001). Similar to men, most improvement in life expectancy for women with long-term conditions was in disability-free years. However, women with cognitive impairment experienced an increase in life expectancy with disability (1.6 years, 95% CI: 0.1 – 3.1, p=0.04) without any improvement in DFLE. Men with cognitive impairment experienced only a small increase in DFLE (1.4 years, 95% CI: -0.7 – 3.4, p=0.18) with an increase in life expectancy with disability that was comparable in magnitude (1.4 years, 95%CI: 0.2-2.5, p=0.02). Therefore, at age 65, the percentage of remaining years of life which were spent disability-free decreased for men with cognitive impairment (difference CFAS II – CFAS I: -3.6%, 95% confidence interval (CI): -8.2 – 1.0, p=0.12) and women with cognitive impairment (difference CFAS II – CFAS I: -3.9%, 95% CI: -7.6 – 0.0, p=0.04) [1].

“While these findings are mostly positive, we found an increase in the percentage of remaining years spent with disability for men and women with cognitive impairment. Given cognitive impairment was also the only long-term condition where prevalence decreased this is a cause for concern and requires further investigation,” the authors say [1].

This conclusion tallies with both the global burden of dementia, which is nearly 60 million cases globally and set to rise to over 150 million cases worldwide in 2050 [2]. Improved healthspan will need public health planning and policy to scale up interventions and fund additional research into finding a cure or strategies that prevent dementia.