On Healthspan and Lifespan, and Learning From Centenarians
I’ve been reading about longevity related topics lately. Maybe that’s what happens when you turn 68
The most important distinction to me is between lifespan and healthspan. Lifespan has been increasing due to modern medicine, but often people go through a long debilitating decline at the end of life. In contrast, healthspan is what percentage of your lifespan is healthy and vibrant. For me that is the most important. Adding “life to your years” is more important than adding “years to your life”. But it turns out the same measures that can increase healthspan can also help with lifespan.
I’ll cover this topic in more detail in future posts, including reviewing what I learned from the books I’ve read on it. Here I wanted to give an overview. And also talk about what I learned from my favorite centenarian.
I think the most important thing to realize is the difference between genetics and epigenetics. Our life and health is not set by out genes, because through epigenetics, we can affect which genes actually express themselves. I have a family history of diabetes, my grandfather and an uncle had it. But I am not doomed to follow in their footsteps: They were largely sedentary and did not have particularly healthy diets. By being active and eating well I can have a different outcome. My mom and one of my Aunts both died of COPD (chronic lung disease). But they were both heavy smokers for much of their lives, so I can avoid that by not smoking.
Another major factor is attitude. It is neither necessary nor helpful to adopt a defeatist attitude about aging, accepting a long slow decline as your future. Assuming you will be vibrant and healthy for many more years is a better outlook. Attitude can become a self-fulling prophecy.
I had the honor and pleasure of knowing one centenarian personally, Delores Cairns, who was born in 1908 and died in 2016 at 107, with very little decline until she broke her hip about a year before she died (she was mentally sharp as a tack right up to the end). She was the aunt of my next door neighbor, Barry Schmitt, when we lived in the country on Croy road, west of Morgan Hill. But to all who knew her she was our beloved Auntie Dee. She was the descendant (as is Barry) of the Montoya brothers, who settled a 160 acre ranch on Croy Road in the 1800s. Barry inherited the ranch and still lives there with his wife Kathie. Auntie Dee is shown pictured above in front of the Montoya ranchhouse.
The Schmitts would always throw a big party on Auntie Dee’s birthday, gatherings I remember very fondly. And we would get to see her many other times of the year when she was visiting. On the occasion of her 95th birthday, Auntie Dee rode with a friend on an ATV, up rough roads to the top of a big hill. And she also went for her first ride on a Harley that day! The bash for her 100th birthday was amazing. I got to dance with her to the wonderful music of the Mariachi band Kathie hired for the party.
Auntie Dee was slender, didn’t smoke, and seemed to eat a fairly healthy diet, although not exceptionally so. She walked a lot as part of her lifestyle but did not do formal exercise as far as I know. What I most remember about her was always being kind, upbeat and young at heart. Before her 100th birthday, Barry and Kathie’s daughter Caitlin did a wonderful job interviewing her great aunt. Caitlin probed for the secret to Auntie Dee’s longevity, and what mostly came up was attitude, such as “don’t sweat the small stuff” and “go with the flow”.
I miss her, but she is still a major role model for me.