When it comes to longevity, quality years are what really count
By Joy Stephenson-Laws, J.D., Founder
***When it comes to longevity, quality years are what really count***
Every year or so, it seems that popular culture updates the idea of the “new 40” to reflect our increasing longevity. For example, I remember when “50 is the new 40” was being touted. Today, we hear that “60 is the new 40.” I am sure that as our life expectancies continue to increase, we soon will hear about how “70 is the new 40.”
At first glance, this seems to be really great news since it means that many of us may live to see our great-grandchildren. This would mean five generations of a family could be around to enjoy each other’s company with boomer women as the matriarchs. When you consider that a hundred years ago, the average life expectancy (also known as LE) in the United States for women was around 55 years and today it is 81, this increase in life expectancy is pretty amazing indeed.
But to really measure the value of these extra years, we have to take a look at whether we can expect to be healthy for most of them – which would be ideal – versus whether many of them will be spent dealing with chronic diseases that negatively our quality of life. After all, what good is it if we live 20 years longer than our parents did if 15 of those are spent with a diminished quality of life? And, if we know that we all run this risk, what can we do to help ensure that those additional years are lived in good health?
It turns out that there is even a formal description, used by the World Health Organization and various governments, to describe how many years we can expect to be healthy before we fall prey to the most common age-related chronic conditions. It is called Healthy Life Expectancy, or HLE for short.
In the United States, the HLE is around 68 years old before chronic diseases and/or injuries start to impact our quality of life. (This measurement should not be confused with another metric called Healthy Working Life Expectancy, which is how many years someone who is 50 years old and can expect to be healthy and in paid work. A recent study in the UK calculated this to be around 10 years, which means that by age 60, people will start to have trouble continuing in their current positions or finding work that is better suited to them.)
If we do some simple math, the difference between a healthy life expectancy of 68 and a projected boomer woman life expectancy of 81 is almost 13 years of diminished quality of life due to health issues, injuries or a decreased ability to manage what are known as “activities of daily living (ADL)”. This difference between HLE and LE will primarily be due to a variety of age-related acute and chronic diseases that will undoubtedly continue to increase in frequency as we live longer. These include heart disease, cancer, arthritis, cataracts, osteoporosis, depression, poor oral health, COPD, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and obesity. Unfortunately, these diseases tend to increase exponentially with age. Falls can also impact HLE, and these also tend to increase we age.
Increasing Healthy Life Expectancy
The good news is that we can delay (and even prevent, in some cases) the onset of these age-related diseases. And, if we already have any of them, we can better manage them to reduce their impact on our quality of life. Given that only 41 percent of people over 65 say their health is very good or excellent, there clearly is a lot of room for improvement!
In my opinion, here are five things boomers can and should be doing to increase healthy life expectancy:
• Reduce Chronic Inflammation: This type of inflammation, (as compared to the perfectly normal and healthy immune response of acute inflammation in response to an injury), can last several months or even years. For example, chronic inflammation has been linked to arteriosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) which increases your risk for cardiovascular problems. Healthy lifestyle choices may reduce chronic inflammation. Some foods that fight inflammation are avocados, green tea, extra virgin olive oil, grapes, mushroom and dark chocolate and cocoa. If you like cherries, you’re in luck since they are rich in antioxidants that fight inflammation.
• Manage Your Weight: Obesity is at the root of many chronic health conditions. We can’t, as boomer women, ignore our expanding waistlines. This health challenge has reached epidemic proportions among boomers with one in three of us now officially obese and another overweight. This means that half of us have a higher risk of reducing our healthy life expectancy and spending more of our years with a chronic health condition or disabling injury. Many people tend to focus on body weight and BMI for weight management, but I suggest you also look at body composition – body fat, lean muscle mass and water – instead of just weight. This is important since being thin does not automatically mean you are healthy. Talk to your doctor about getting a body composition test.
• Get Adequate Nutrition: As boomers, making sure our bodies are getting the nutrients it needs in the right amounts becomes even more critical since our bodies may not absorb nutrients as well as they did when we were younger. Try to eliminate many processed foods like hot dogs and other processed meats as well as many ingredients and additives which are basically not good for us. If you’re not sure whether you are nutritionally balanced, ask your doctor or a competent healthcare provider for a comprehensive nutrition test.
• Maintain Mobility: The old adage of “use it or lose it” applies to our mobility as we age. 150 minutes a week of some form of exercise (walking, biking, swimming, pickle ball, dancing for example) will help us manage our weight, improve our cardiovascular system (including lowering blood pressure), as well as help protect our joints, promote better balance and increase our sense of well-being. And walking after a meal has the added benefit of helping to reduce blood sugar levels.
• Protect Mental Health: As boomer women, we run a higher chance of living alone as we age. This, or course, increases our risk for isolation, especially if we live in a more rural area or spend most of our time at home either by choice or necessity (chronic disease, disability, the pandemic). This isolation can readily cause feelings of loneliness, which can eventually trigger anxiety, depression, hypertension, a decrease in cognitive function and even the development of dementia. One of the best ways to combat this isolation is to join a virtual book club, take an online course, do video calls with friends and family (it’s really very easy and very fun), or participate in an online exercise class. A great resource for these types of activities is your local senior or community center (the one near me has moved many of their activities online), or faith community. As we get older, it is important to create, maintain and grow our circle of friends. Our health depends on it!
So by just taking some simple steps, we can help maximize our number of healthy, productive years. It’s definitively worth the effort.