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healthspan

noun [countable]

the period of a person's life during which they are generally healthy and free from serious or chronic illness

'The National Service Framework for Older People is already engaged on a 10-year plan to end ageism, improve health and social care, and encourage us to modify our lifestyle now to make living longer a pleasurable experience. The lag between healthspan and lifespan is serious. None of us look forward to chronic illness.'

The Guardian 13th May 2002

'Jackson replied that “lifespans” were the demographic definition, but “healthspans” presented a complicating factor. A big unknown is the functionality of older citizens …'

'Moral Foundations, the Rule of Law, and the Challenge of Global Aging',
Caux Round Table Global Dialogue 9th July 2003

In May 2005, scientists in the US revealed new research claiming that they could reduce the potential for age-related illness and thereby significantly extend human healthspan, the period of life during which an individual remains essentially healthy.

new research reflects a growing trend among medical experts to distinguish between lifespan, the period between birth and death, and healthspan, the period when a person or animal is fully fit

Researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine created genetically engineered mice that lived 20 per cent longer than normal. The specially engineered mice produced high levels of an antioxidant enzyme called catalase, which acts to control levels of hydrogen peroxide, a waste product of metabolism which can generate chemicals causing tissue damage. Mice that produced extra catalase had healthier heart muscle tissue, protecting them from the age-related heart problems observed in normal mice. Similar techniques could be developed to protect the human body from age-related conditions, not only increasing life expectancy but also prolonging the period of life during which a person remains free from serious illness: their healthspan.

This new research reflects a growing trend among medical experts to distinguish between lifespan, the period between birth and death, and healthspan, the period when a person or animal is fully fit. For humans in the West, lifespan is usually longer than healthspan. UK government figures show that between 1981 and 1987, the life expectancy of men went up from 70.9 to 74.6. The healthy life expectancy however only went up from 64.4 to 66.9. In women also, the healthy life expectancy increase lagged a year behind actual life expectancy. Amid concerns on both sides of the Atlantic about the growing aged, but not necessarily healthy, population and its consequent burden on the welfare state, research which concentrated previously on dealing with age-related illness is increasingly looking at ways to intervene in the aging process and promote an improved healthspan.

If you'd like to know more about your own healthspan, Dr Thomas Perls at the Boston Medical Center has developed the Healthspan Calculator©, an online quiz which enables you to predict your life expectancy.

Background – healthspan

The term healthspan has featured in medical research for the last five years, though is yet to be formally recorded in a published dictionary. One of the earliest uses of the term is associated with Dr. Gordon Lithgow, formerly of the University of Manchester in the UK and now associate professor at the Buck Institute for advancing age research in California.

The word healthspan is, of course, a straightforward blend of health and span. Span is used productively in compounds or as a suffix to refer to 'the amount of time or space that something covers', e.g. attention/concentration span, timespan, wingspan. It has its origins in an Old English word spann, meaning 'the distance between the tips of the thumb and little finger'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 11th July 2005.

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