Lifespan vs. Health-span vs. Disease-span: What’s the Difference, and Why Does it Matter?

Before diving into this post, engage in this quick thought exercise: Imagine your ideal final 5, 10, or even 20 years of life. Possibly, you’re spending glorious days of retirement on a beach somewhere reading books, moving your toes through the sand, and soaking in (essential!) 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. Though each of our ideal settings may differ, I’m 99.99% sure none of us would choose to spend our last years sick and immobile at some type of care facility.

Think this post 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 that the choices we’re making today are contributing not only to our lifespans, but more importantly to our health-spans or disease-spans. The “morbid” imagination of our last years is actually extremely important if we wish to be the healthiest versions of ourselves up until the very end! At a certain point, it may be too late to reverse or slow the progress of the disease that would land us in a care facility rather than at the beach or in the mountains. Thus, it’s empowering to recognize that the choices we make in the present hold serious weight; they will positively (or negatively) affect our lives years and years from now.

The Basics: Lifespan, Health-span vs. Disease-span, and Chronic Disease

Lifespan =  The total number of years a person lives.

Health-span = The total number of healthy years a person lives free from disease, immobility, etc.

Disease-span = The total number of unhealthy years a person lives with disease, immobility, etc.

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.”

The Current State of Things

Sure, some diseases may be genetic and unpreventable. I’m not denying this fact. Rather, I’m attempting to shift the focus to the reality that the last years of life don’t necessarily need to be the pits. Unfortunately, the rapid rise in chronic disease in the United States has somewhat normalized sickness. Since disease surrounds us, we may even expect to get cancer or heart disease at some point in our lives, which is a completely crazy, counterproductive expectation!

Further, the current health care system is now often referred to as “sick care” because there is little focus on prevention and more emphasis on treatment. According to Farshad Fani Marvasti, M.D., M.P.H., and Randall S. Stafford, M.D., Ph.D., “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.” Again, since chronic diseases surround us, we’re beginning to think they’re normal and to be expected, but this doesn’t have to be the case!

Before we dive into preventative tactics, consider this analogy. An American child enters school around the ripe age of five and ideally graduates at 18 with a high school diploma. Throughout the child’s 13 years of schooling, he/she inputs tiny pieces of information into his/her brain slowly and consistently. The end result (hopefully!) is a diploma, which represents the piecemeal learning process the child has undergone. The diploma is not inevitable, as we know. Rather, it is the representation of a 13-year accumulation of knowledge. Now, liken the diploma to a diagnosis. When given the diagnosis of some chronic disease, it can be easy to think that the named diagnosis is the inception of the disease. Once it’s 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, we make daily life choices that slowly and consistently steer us toward a health- or disease-span. I don’t know about you, but I choose to make the best choices today that will prolong the former!

Preventing Chronic Disease to Lengthen Your Health-span

Since I read The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest a year ago, I’ve been ruminating on this idea of lifespan vs. health-span vs. disease-span. 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 in that it seeks to expose the secrets of centenarians around the world. Believe it or not, people in other 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 health-spans, and the term “disease-span” is a misnomer.

Ultimately, doctors, scientists, researchers, and centenarians agree on the following healthy life habits:

  1. 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.”
  2. Don’t engage in high-risk and obviously terrible behaviors, like smoking.
  3. Eat mostly whole–not processed!–foods, and prioritize vegetables! View high-quality animal protein as a “condiment” to your veggies rather than the other way around.
  4. Don’t. Eat. Sugar. Refined sugar is the worst, but be mindful of your consumption of natural sugars–like those found in fruit–as well. The rise of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s (now often referred to as “type 3 diabetes”) has a direct correlation with increased sugar consumption.
  5. Be social. Find purpose in a community.
  6. Move and strengthen your body. Regular physical activity has incredible anti-aging effects. This doesn’t mean joining a box gym or signing 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.
  7. Engage in some type of mindfulness through a spiritual, religious, or meditative practice.
  8. Protect your body from harmful toxins and pollutants, like the chemicals found in many skincare and household products, plastics, etc.
  9. Be grateful. According to research by Harvard Medical School, “giving thanks can make you happier.” And, happier people tend to live longer; mindset matters!
  10. Connect to nature. An ever-increasing number of studies is showing that a connection to nature makes us healthier and happier people.

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 adopt the above to mitigate or even eliminate your symptoms! For example, increasing research is proving that it is possible to reverse type 2 diabetes through diet and lifestyle choices. Terry Wahls, M.D., was diagnosed with MS and told she’d spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, but she made diet and lifestyle changes and is now able to walk and ride a bike.

The Bottom Lines:

  1. The diet and lifestyle choices you make each day–however small and insignificant they may seem–are contributing to your lifespan, which will either be defined by or end with health or disease.
  2. Never equate the word “diagnosis” with “doom”! Even if you’re in the thick of a chronic illness, no matter what your age, the choices you make from here on out can alleviate or even reverse your symptoms.
  3. Recognize that you plan an activenot a passive–role in your overall life- and health-span!

As always, I love to read your thoughts, reflections, and questions in the “Comments” section!

In each blog post, I aim to bring you food for thought (pun intended. Note: my day job is teaching English), but don’t take my word for it! Click on and read all of the links above to become your own expert on this topic; knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the “why” behind each biohack, the easier it will be to stick to it and realize you can’t live without it!



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