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Before diving into this post, engage in a quick thought exercise: Imagine your ideal final 5, 10, or even 20 years of life. What are you doing?
Possibly, you’re spending glorious days of retirement on a beach somewhere reading books, moving your toes through the sand, and soaking in vitamin D via the sun’s hot rays. Or maybe you’re at a mountain cabin overlooking snowy cliffs, enjoying the warmth from a crackling fire, and sipping hot tea. Your ideal setting may differ from mine, but I’m pretty certain neither of us would choose to spend our last years sick and immobile in some type of care facility.
Think this is off to a morbid start? Well, that’s not my intention! This post is meant to be empowering—not bleak!—because the reality is this: The choices you’re making today are either increasing or decreasing your chance at the longest healthspan.
The “morbid” imagination of your last years is actually extremely important if you wish to be the healthiest version of yourself up until the very end! At a certain point, it may be too late to reverse or slow the progress of a disease that’ll shorten your healthspan.
Thus, it’s empowering to recognize that every nutrition/lifestyle choice holds serious weight. Today’s decisions will positively (or negatively!) affect your life years and years from now.
Before we continue, let’s tackle some basic definitions…
Lifespan vs. Healthspan vs. Disease-span
Lifespan = The total number of years a person lives. Traditionally, “lifespan” is what we’ve heard and talked about. You may think you want to extend this, but what you really want to extend is your healthspan!
Healthspan= The total number of healthy years a person lives free from disease, immobility, etc. Sign me up!
Disease-span = The total number of unhealthy years a person spends, experiencing disease, immobility, etc. Chronic disease is on the rise so, unfortunately, many people live their last years plagued by one ailment or another.
According to medicine.net, chronic disease =
A disease that persists for a long time. A chronic disease is one lasting 3 months or more, by the definition of the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. Chronic diseases generally cannot be prevented by vaccines or cured by medication, nor do they just disappear. Eighty-eight percent of Americans over 65 years of age have at least one chronic health condition (as of 1998). Health damaging behaviors – particularly tobacco use, lack of physical activity, and poor eating habits – are major contributors to the leading chronic diseases.
Some of the most common chronic diseases are heart disease, cancer, asthma, diabetes, and hypertension (high blood pressure).
The Status Quo = Expecting Disease in “Old Age”
Ever since I read The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, I’ve been reflecting on the differences among the terms lifespan, healthspan, and disease-span.
Sure, some diseases are genetic and unpreventable. This is an undeniable fact. However, another proven fact is this: Many diseases—especially the aforementioned chronic ones—are preventable!
Unfortunately, the rapid rise of chronic disease in the United States has somewhat normalized sickness. Since disease surrounds us, we may expect to get cancer or heart disease at some point in our lives, taking zero proactive, preventative measures. This mentality is pessimistic and counterproductive!
The current health care system is often referred to as “sick care” because there is little focus on prevention and more emphasis on treatment. According to MDs Farshad Fani Marvasti and Randall S. Stafford:
Cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes now cause 70% of U.S. deaths and account for nearly 75% of health care expenditures. Unfortunately, many modifiable risk factors for chronic diseases are not being addressed adequately. A prevention model, focused on forestalling the development of disease before symptoms or life-threatening events occur, is the best solution to the current crisis.
Recently, I listened to a great podcast in which functional medicine practitioner Evan Brand interviewed documentarian Jason Prall about his new film The Human Longevity Project. This documentary is very Blue Zones-esque because Prall seeks to expose the secrets of centenarians around the world.
Believe it or not, people in many countries do not expect to get sick with age because chronic disease is not the norm in their communities. Rather, they expect to stay active and healthy throughout the entirety of “old age.” Their lifespans equal their healthspans; the term “disease-span” is a misnomer.
If you still can’t shake the disease-will-just-happen-to-me status quo, this analogy may help…
In the United States, you usually begin school at five and graduate at eighteen with a high school diploma. Throughout your years of schooling, you slowly and consistently absorb tiny pieces of information into your brain.
The diploma is a symbol of the piecemeal learning process you experienced over the course of thirteen years. As we know, attainment of a diploma is not an inevitability.
Now, liken a diploma to a diagnosis. When given the diagnosis of some chronic disease, it can be easy to think that the named diagnosis is its inception. Once the disease is named, it’s given weight.
However, when the disease is likened to a diploma, it’s easier to recognize that its roots began with life choices years and years prior. Just as a child slowly and consistently builds up to that high school diploma, you make daily life choices slowly and consistently steer you towards either a health- or disease-span.
And now for the uplifting part!
10 Ways to Prevent Chronic Disease + Extend Your Healthspan
Ultimately, doctors, scientists, researchers, and centenarians agree on the following healthy habits:
- Prioritize sleep. “Adults between the ages of 26 and 64 should get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, according to NSF [National Sleep Foundation] recommendations. Those 65 and older should get 7 to 8 hours each night.”
- Don’t engage in high-risk and obviously terrible behaviors, like smoking.
- Eat mostly whole—not processed!—foods, especially vegetables! View high-quality animal protein as a condiment (or “condi-meat”!) to your veggies rather than the other way around.
- Don’t. Eat. Refined. Sugar. The rise in chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s (now often referred to as “type 3 diabetes”) has a direct correlation with increased sugar consumption. Refined sugar is the absolute worst, but it’s also important to be mindful of your natural sugar consumption. Fruit = nature’s candy, so eat mostly veggies!
- Be social. Find purpose in a community.
- Move and strengthen your body. Regular physical activity has incredible anti-aging effects. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to join a box gym or sign up for the latest fitness craze; most centenarians do “cardio” through daily walking, stair climbing, and/or gardening. They “strength train” by carrying things like groceries and buckets of water. Find the activities that work for you; be sure to move daily and break a sweat regularly!
- Engage in some type of mindfulness through a spiritual, religious, or meditative practice.
- Protect your body from harmful toxins and pollutants, like the chemicals found in many skincare and household products, plastics, etc.
- Be grateful. According to research by Harvard Medical School, “giving thanks can make you happier.” And, happier people tend to live longer. Outlook matters!
- Connect to nature. An ever-increasing number of studies suggest that time spent in nature correlates to wellness and joy.
Obviously, adopting the above positive, healthy behaviors and habits as soon as possible is the ultimate goal. However, if you’re already in the thick of a chronic disease, it’s not too late to make lifestyle changes that can mitigate or even eliminate your symptoms!
YOU play an active—not a passive—role in your overall health journey, so be proactive and maintain hope!
Bottom line: Diet/lifestyle choices you make each day—however small and insignificant they may seem—contribute to your chance at the longest healthspan! Never equate the word “diagnosis” with “doom.” Even if you’re in the thick of a chronic illness, decisions you make from here on out may alleviate and even reverse your symptoms!
Any comments or questions? Share your thoughts below!
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