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Volume 15, Number 2

S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is known for his research about the maximum number of years that human beings can live. In an opinion piece published in JAMA in 2018, Olshansky argues that any increase in the maximum human lifespan is unlikely. The current record is 122 years. More importantly, he emphasizes that a better aim is to extend healthspan, in which any health-related declines in function or quality of life are delayed as long as possible prior to death.

Aging brings with it increasing susceptibility to numerous illnesses, a process that is inevitable. A 90-year-old immune system isn’t as robust as one that is 30 years old. Staying healthy becomes more challenging as one ages. With a focus on healthspan, the goal is to maintain a high quality of life as long as possible until death occurs. While this can and does involve medical interventions for acute and chronic illnesses, including those most likely to occur among older people, primary prevention throughout life arguably has the most significant role to play in extending healthspan. This involves a range of public health efforts, particularly those that target human behavior. Decreasing smoking rates, improving dietary quality, and creating environments more conducive to physical activity are examples.

Prioritizing the expansion of health expectancy (years of a high level of functioning and quality of life) is simultaneously good for life expectancy (how long a person lives). Fortunately, most individual and public health efforts to promote positive health behaviors and decrease negative health behaviors are not disease-specific but rather are important for a range of body systems and organs. A healthy diet doesn’t just benefit the digestive system. Being physically active is good for the lungs, the heart, and the brain, among other organs. While one can’t stop the contributions that the clock and the calendar make to aging, persons do have a significant amount of control over behavioral factors that help determine one’s healthspan.

Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.


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