Unfortunately, the short answer to that question is, “Not always.” While I usually start out my posts a little more optimistically, this idea has me wondering. Why? Because as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been listening to a bunch of lectures by a man named Ken Dychtwald. Based on many of his insights, I can’t help but believe this topic deserves more thought and consideration than I’ve given it before. After all, what is a long lifespan worth if it doesn’t include a long healthspan? Do that many of us want to stay alive long after our health is unrecoverable or completely deteriorated? Not me. What about you?
I live in Southern California and a large portion of us are into staying healthy. Maybe it’s the warmer weather or more casual outdoor lifestyle. We tend to eat well, exercise more and take care of ourselves. I think that’s why I see men and women around me living well into their 60s, 70s, 80s and some even in their 90s, with vibrant and active lives. But is that really typical of where most people are once they find themselves at those ages? Is it delusional to think every one of us can escape a decline? I think plenty of evidence exists showing that when take the right actions—along with a positive attitude, close relationships, and conscious intent to stay active and healthy—we help to boost a longer healthspan. Yet even though that is true, what about those who don’t follow the same program or are caught off guard unexpectedly?
It matters. Something I found noteworthy in all of the lectures by Dychtwald was that most people approaching retirement age tend to focus on how much money they will need. But it turns out that isn’t what’s most important to them once retired. Instead, according to Dychtwald and all the research he has done in this regard, “Retirees say that staying healthy is the #1 key to a happy retirement.” He also points out that the primary reason that many people retire before they thought they would is because they had no choice. They either got sick, injured, or they needed to care for the health of a loved one. Any of those circumstances obviously drain financial resources no matter how much you save, and definitely affect the quality of one’s retirement. So if money isn’t the most important element to plan for in retirement, that changes things. And, that’s why Dychtwald believes that while we age “One of the smartest things a person can do for their financial wellbeing is to have more physical and emotional wellbeing.”
Also at issue, when we focus solely on lifespan many people tend to judge success by the number of years a person manages to stay alive. But should that be the goal? Something Dychtwald believes that we need to do is to work on creating better medical science and trained doctors with a focus on older adults and the quality of their experience. As part of the problem he points out that in 2016 there were 226 medical schools in the U.S. and only 12 of them had departments of geriatrics. Despite the obvious need, Dychtwald says this is, “…because geriatrics is not sexy or highly compensated. The number of geriatricians in America, while there are 40,000 or so pediatricians…we only have about 5,000..” That’s right. Only 5,000 specialists are trained and experienced with the growing needs of aged adults.
Dychtwald also makes a great case for the need for better health science and research for seniors. The major reason that lifespan increased so dramatically in the last century is because we eliminated most of the diseases and health concerns that took people out in early life. Problems like infectious diseases, difficulties at childbirth, infections, even accidents have been radically reduced through the years. Yet, while most of us are living long past what our ancestors did, little is being done to eliminate the diseases and health conditions that mainly affect those over 50.
Dychtwald uses a particularly vivid example of this by mentioning the iron lung. Back when polio was rampant and deadly, the primary solution that many sought was to create more portable and “comfortable” iron lungs so anyone with the condition could stay alive. It wasn’t until Jonas Salk insisted that we cure the disease, rather than merely treat it, that the cure was found. Now, in the 21st Century there is a lot of focus on making cancer treatments less debilitating, but far less on eliminating the horrible disease altogether. It’s the same with Alzheimer’s. Instead of doing everything necessary to cure it, billons of dollars are being spent on how to manage it. According to Dychtwald in 2016, “…for every dollar we spend on caregiving people with Alzheimer’s, we spend less than a half a penny on the science needed to beat the disease in the first place.”
Of course, of primary importance is the awareness that we must take more personal responsibility for our own health throughout our lifetimes—not just at the end of it. There is overwhelming research that shows that remaining physically active, eating healthy foods, staying mentally agile and minimizing stress can dramatically influence our lifespan. Practicing moderation with substances like sugar, fats and alcohol, and eliminating smoking are also wise. Taking care of our teeth and regularly scheduling checkups and preventative medical tests also lead to better outcomes. Forming positive relationships and getting beneficial sleep is also beneficial. While we may not be able to control every eventuality, we can influence our health in more ways than our parents ever thought possible.
I do believe that a lot of the anti-aging and pro-long-life publicity that we frequently read and hear about is exciting. I just heard about a particular molecule has been discovered that when given to mice it allowed for significant rejuvenation of their muscle mass. Who over 60 doesn’t enjoy reading that? But let’s not get too carried away with the hype. Even if the interventions eventually pay off, they will likely be only available to the super wealthy AND won’t come close to answering the “why” we want to live longer in the first place.
I also believe that sometimes it is easier not to think about this issue. Like Scarlett O’Hara, it’s tempting to tell myself I’ll just think about it tomorrow. As long as I feel okay today, why worry? But isn’t it possible that is a big part of the problem in the first place? Just imagining we’ll live forever without considering why, and how and all the details of it isn’t very realistic. Vampires notwithstanding, Dychtwald tells of an ancient Greek fable that points out the challenge.
In ancient Greek times Eos, the Goddess of Dawn, fell in love with a mortal warrior named Tithonus. Distraught over his mortality, Eos begged her father Zeus to grant her lover immortality. “Are you certain that is what you want for him?” asked Zeus. “Oh yes!” cried Eos enthusiastically. It wasn’t until she left the grand chamber of Zeus that she realized that she hadn’t specifically asked for Tithonus to remain young and healthy. And so it was with each passing year, Eos watched with sadness and even horror as her lover grew older and sicker. His skin withered, his organs deteriorated and his brain grew feeble. Ultimately, the once proud warrior was reduced to a collection of pained and broken bones—but still he continued to live forever.
When we are young most of us tend to take our health for granted. Then once we hit middle age something may occur either with us or a loved one and we start recognizing that it is something to value and that needs our care. What would happen if, from the time we were children, we were taught that our lifestyle choices had consequences? What would be different if we were raised knowing that the food we eat, what we drink, the air we breathe, the hours we spend active (or inactive), the amount of time we slept at night, and the quality of our relationships, all impacted our health in the days to come?
And knowing it takes discipline and focus to impact our health in a positive way–is that something all of us really want to do? Maybe the trade-off for all that effort isn’t something some believe is worth the resolve. Best to admit that up front rather than blame others like our parents for bad genes or the drug industry for not having the right medication to make it happen. Again, if we want to live forever, why? And what do we hope to be and experience with that extra longer life?
Trust me, I have no answers. I just believe it is SMART to start asking these questions. I confess that these topics didn’t interest me nearly as much as they do now as I approach age 65 in 2020. Yes I want my healthspan to match my lifespan but I now realize that it asks more of me than just a roll of the dice. Life is a participatory experience and the time to get involved is now.
I’ve always been a fan of “quality over quantity”, but it would be nice to have both. 🙂 Luckily for me, I’ve never lived an unhealthy life and I’ve pretty much been able to do what I want and be relatively healthy my entire life. That being said, we do our best to remain healthy. Unfortunately, bad genes have taken loved ones away from us and have affected us as well, even if they/we lived a super healthy and conscious life…
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Liesbet! I agree that BOTH is best. And good for you that you’ve started taking good care of your health long before you need it. And while sometimes the history and examples of those close to us can have an effect, there are still things we can do to approach the coming years in healthy ways. Ultimately it always comes down to doing our best with what we have…right where we are! Let’s keep it up okay! ~Kathy
Patricia Doyle says
I really like the term health-span. I feel healthier now than I have ever been, even having dealt with cancer a couple of years ago. I cannot go back and relive those years of no exercise, poor eating habits, and too much stress… but this day I can focus on my physical and mental wellbeing. I’m not gung-ho about it… no excessive exercising program, no eating only plant based, or getting all minimal or meditative. But I am happier and more fit, I enjoy life, and I hope I can still be saying those same things in 30 years!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Pat! How great that you are feeling super healthy now. And I so agree we can’t go back and make our past different, just start from where we are and go from there. And I’m more like you–I also don’t want to go extreme–and like you I’m guessing there are examples of that all around us. I tend to go for those things that uplift my life…I love to walk so I walk everyday. I love to dance to I drag Thom out to dance as much as possible. I enjoy eating I just have learned to alter my tastebuds to appreciate more food that is healthier and good for me. In may ways I think of my adjustments as “rightsized” to my life and my healthy body. If I could wave a magic wand I would wish that for everyone! I’m so glad you are also feeling good about your life AND your health! ~Kathy
Nancy Dobbins says
Yes, I want my healthspan to match my lifespan! While there are some things about health and aging we cannot control, I believe that there is a lot that we can impact. This is a big reason for an earlier retirement (reducing stress), changing our diet to Whole Food Plant Based, and making a conscience choice to live in places North and South that encourage an active lifestyle. Both Dan and I have avoided all medications except a daily vitamin and baby aspirin. I had occasion this past week to see a doctor for a pinched nerve in my neck and, of course, since he was not my primary care dr in NE wanted to know about my meds. When he found out there were none he was astonished. I am 61 and he said that I am probably 1 in 100 that he sees (we are in an older community) that can say that. I struggle with borderline hypertension (due to anxiety) and thus far have been able to manage it with diet and deep breathing exercises. In my mind the medications are almost as bad for quality of life as the actual condition. I watched my parents take a cocktail of meds every day as they aged and I want to fight this tooth and nail!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Nancy! Good for you and your husband for being so proactive with your health. And thanks also for pointing out that good health isn’t JUST the body…it is your mind, heart and soul. You also add in a balance of dealing with a spouse. Fortunately it sounds like you and your husband are on the same page and I don’t think I emphasized how much that can affect our wellbeing as well, did I? Research has proven that the people we live with–even our friends and acquaintances impact our health in more ways that we usually remember. May we all continue to stay as healthy as within our power for the reminder of our days! ~Kathy
Mona McGinnis says
I’m in my 60’s and well-acquainted with the changes of ageing and conscious of the best-before-date on us humans. I concur with you that life is a participatory experience; it takes discipline and focus to impact our health in a positive way. As a health care worker, I’ve seen people who defied all the odds on both ends of the spectrum yet the impact of positive health practices cannot be denied. I have no desire to live forever. In fact, I’m glad to know there’s an end. There are worse things than death. Last night I attended the 50th wedding anniversary of friends. There was a 91 yr old lady there who was dressed to the nines, enjoying the celebratory dinner and dance. I asked if she wanted a ride home as I prepared to leave. “No thanks. It’s too early,” she replied.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Mona! Thank you for that great story of the lady at the party. It is also a great example of how different we are—and how our circumstances are interwoven with our own stories about aging. And I’ll bet you have LOTS of good stories of how people approach their health and where it leads. The challenge of course if for us to be willing to do what we can with what we have and to be at peace with what we can’t change. Thanks again for your comment. ~Kathy
Diane Dahli says
The good thing about staying healthy as you age, is that it really doesn’t depend on the amount of money you have. Barring developing a terrible disease, it’s possible to stay healthy and strong by walking, working out at home (all you need is a couple of weights), eating moderately, having a good attitude and not smoking. I live in a condo complex of many people who are living well into their 80s (some are 90 plus), and I am always inspired by their state of health. But I agree, we need more doctors and health professionals who know how to advise and treat older people. We do have a shortage of those physicians here.
The Widow Badass says
Like everyone else, I am very interested in quality of life vs quantity of life. I’ve had a lot of different role models to show me the way of healthy (and not-so-healthy) aging.
It’s a shame there aren’t more doctors interested in gerontology but it’s not really surprising, given that our society worships youth and is terrified of death. Old people are walking (or not) reminders that the end is nigh, for all of us. Nobody is getting out of here alive!
suzanne vosbikian says
Yes, I want my healthspan to match my lifespan, and to peacefully lay my head down and not wake up when my time comes – preferably thirty years from now and without having suffered a day or taken a drug.That is not going to happen, so I do my best to be diligent about exercise, eat well and get good sleep. Malcolm has just begun to take blood pressure medication and my doc wants to prescribe Lipator for my cholesterol, which I prefer to not so successfully handle with diet. Your word “participation” is right on point. Thanks for the reminder that ‘focus and discipline’ is a requirement of continued good health.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Suzanne! I know when I was younger I still wanted to believe–like you–that I was going to just sail on through life until the end and then just drop (preferably in my sleep.) And while I would be happy if that happens, I’ve modified that version a bit and am becoming more open to it adjusting as I go. I do think that a degree of “flexibility” is helpful don’t you? And while I’m convinced we can influence our physical health, I also want to continue to improve and stay flexible with my mental, emotional and yes, spiritual approach as well. Perhaps reminding ourself that we are more than just physical beings will aid in making the journey a bit smoother. I’m counting on the fact that while we can’t know for certain what the future holds for any of us, by staying open and optimistic we will be better prepared. And as a planner 🙂 I don’t want to leave any of it to just chance. ~Kathy
This was a great article that everyone “our age” can relate to! Love the word healthspan. And, please California is not the only state where people live healthy-lol!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Susan! You are absolutely right. I KNOW that there are many healthy people in LOTS of states across the country–so I’m sorry if my post implied otherwise. But even here there are CLEARLY plenty of people who could make better choices. And wouldn’t it be great if we all started thinking about HEALTHSPAN rather than lifespan even when we are quite young. That just might help guide us to making better decisions much of the time. I’m all for enjoying myself and splurging…I just don’t think that should be my lifestyle!!! Thanks for joining in on the conversation. ~Kathy
Leslie Susan Clingan says
You don’t realize the importance of good sleep until you aren’t getting it. My sleep is good one week, poor the next, depending on what I am worrying about at the time!
My father worked at St. Jude Cancer Research Hospital for years as a research scientist. He said that there would never be a cure for cancer because there is too much money in treating it. He believed the root of most cancers could be traced to genomes and DNA. When my nephew died of cancer at the age of 3, it was very difficult on my father because he had spent all of his adult life searching for a cure for the very disease that killed Andrew.
I feel healthier now than I have in years. Just takes turning 60 and then 61 to begin getting serious about taking better care of ourselves.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Leslie! Darn. So sorry to hear about your nephew AND your dad’s reaction. I have also suspected that there is FAR too much money in cancer for a lot of people (or companies) to want to find a cure. I just hope that someone like a Jonas Salk will take it upon himself or herself to do it regardless. Alzheimer’s is the same. I personally believe that baby boomers, as a HUGE demographic, could force the change. But we’d have to all get on the same side regardless of political position–and I’m not sure that will happen anytime soon. Sad, because I do believe it is possible. And yes to the wakeup that happens to most of us in our early 60s!!!! ~Kathy
Health really is everything and we need to be constantly vigilant about taking care of ourselves and making the right decisions regarding exercise and diet. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean we have to deprive ourselves of non-nutritious goodies or occasional laziness, or just means that we need to make the right decisions most of the time. I am shocked by how few geriatric doctors there are. Our profit driven healthcare industry is a real problem. The good news is that we can all get expensive plastic surgery to mask our aging as that is a very lucrative field of medicine. We may die sicker and sooner, but we’ll look great!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Janis! Thanks for pointing out one of the BIG ironies, at least IMHO, about some in our culture. Instead of working on their health (and I happen to think our mental and emotional health is as important–perhaps more so–than our physical health) some people invest a ton of money on how they look. A painful example is a younger family member in her late 30s who is simply beautiful and she repeatedly goes in for botox treatment. I can’t help but wonder if she used that money to work on her mental, emotional and physical wellbeing that that would benefit her when she gets to be my age far more than having a face at her age with no wrinkles. But then again, I also live in an area where plastic surgeons outnumber General practitioners. If something physically wrong happens to you it would likely be easier to get a face lift than it would be to see a specialist. And your statement, “We may die sicker and sooner, but we’ll look great!” is pretty fun…but I suspect very true. Here’s hoping for this to change in the future. ~Kathy
Terri Webster Schrandt says
You bring several excellent points, Kathy! I for one, do not want to put in the time on Earth just for the sake of logging years, but rather focus on the quality of life and the health that goes along with it. My husband and I are so blessed to be healthy and feel youthful (California lifestyle has something to do with that), and the all-important physical activity and wholesome leisure sports and hobbies are critical to this idea of wellness. Hans has been ridiculously healthy and active his entire life but at a recent physical his doc told him he has elevated blood pressure. Now at 60, he is taking medication for this while keeping up his exercise regiment and paying attention to salt. I’ve been told I have high cholesterol despite my physical lifestyle and nutritional eating, but have no history of heart issues, no smoking or other health problems that could lead to stroke. But I will say that after my foot surgery this summer, that was a good wake up call to continue to fight hard and lead a healthy lifestyle. Injury can be debilitating, and planned surgery is right next door to that! We just need enough $$ to live and we are looking at retiring in Spokane, WA within the next 2 years. Thank you for sharing this great information, and I hope our money-hungry society can see the benefits of curing disease. And yes, we need more gerontologists and geriatric-focused medical professionals as 75,000 boomers are continuing to age and reach those 90s!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Terri! You and me both for sure. Yes it is wonderful to feel healthy and youthful but I don’t believe any of us should take it for granted (or assume we’ll be exempt) that eventually we will all be touched by one thing or another. As you said, your foot thing gave you a “taste” of what it can be like to be incapacitated for a while. The good news it healed well and you are pretty much past it. Of course, I also believe that when we are faced with injury or health challenge, it makes us more compassionate to what others deal with when they are doing the same. While I don’t think doctors are the only solution, and that we do play a large part, I think it is tragic if people can’t get or afford preventative treatment that down the road would make a HUGE difference. We are all in this together (whether older or younger) so let’s hope we can change things in the days/years to come. Thanks for your great input on this! ~Kathy
My grandmother must have been related to Harlee’s. She said the exact same thing! It is easy to look back at some of our poor health choices with regret. We’ve all made them. The good news is that more and more health science research shows that we can make positive impact on our health and wellbeing by starting today, regardless of our current age. This is also great modeling for our children, grandchildren and those around us!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! I SO agree that no matter what our choices were in the past, it’s NEVER to late to start making better ones. I also agree that it is important to model a healthy lifestyle to our family AND our friends. Both you and Richard are surely wonderful examples to your family because I can attest that you are good examples to all your friends! ~Kathy
My grandmother used to say all the time, “If you have your health you have everything”. As a kid I used to roll my eyes but now, not so much! When we are young we think we will live forever and the consequences of our lifestyles or deeds come under the category of living for today! I agree you can make changes as we all grow up but realize that some of our problems on health or wealth is because of some poor choices in our youth. That said, I do believe that living a happy life today with good/smart choices is prudent.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! Yes isn’t it funny how it looks and feels REALLY different at our age? And like you said, we just tend to believe we will live forever, that somehow, someway we will be the great exception to something we all share. And like you said, sometimes we do make bad choices that we eventually have to live with–and then sometimes stuff just hits us out of the blue. But even then, I believe it is SMART for us at least open up the conversation about where we are and where we hope to be from here on out, don’t you? Thanks for your thoughts on this! ~Kathy
A great question, Kathy. When we get together with friends, this topic does come up. Do we want to live until 120? Most of us say, no. I also think this is where it does help to know our family history, our genetic predisposition. I like how you address emotional and physical wellbeing. Interesting how there are very few geriatricians. Like you say, we ultimately must take on personal responsibility for our health. And, it is never too late. Many great takeaways in this post, Kathy!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Erica! Good for you and your friends for being willing to talk about this. I don’t think we need to belabor it, but pretending it doesn’t apply (or won’t ever apply) is pretty crazy. I think overall our culture is in denial about getting older and that likely helps to promote ageism. If we can’t admit it ourselves, or that it’s even happening, then how can we expect those younger than us to ever give us recognition and/or respect? And yes, I firmly believe we can influence it by our behaviors although sometimes things just happen. Far better to be mentally and emotionally (not to mention spiritually?) prepared for life changes don’t you think? Thanks for your thoughts on this. ~Kathy
I always appreciate your posts, Kathy. I often think about them for a long time afterwards. They make me look at life, often with a new perspective. Have a good rest of your weekend:) Erica