Iconic actress Betty White celebrated her 98th birthday in January. Her advice for staying happy and healthy? “Enjoy life.” She said we also need to “accentuate the positive, not the negative.”
White’s advice is consistent with what research on aging is reporting. Our attitude can profoundly affect how we age and even how long we live. Studies suggest that having the right attitude about aging can increase our lifespan by as much as 11-15%.
Yesterday, Hollywood great, Kirk Douglas, died at the age of 103. Douglas stared in numerous movies including “Spartacus” and “Lust for Life.” Even though he suffered a stroke in 1996 and spent the rest of his life speech-impaired, he chose to take on a new role as a stroke survivor and advocate. He also wrote a memoir, My Stroke of Luck, about his experience. Douglas reportedly adapted to his post-stroke-life using humor and optimism.
It no longer surprises many of us when we read or hear about people who live into their nineties and beyond. After all, at least a third of older adults who turned 65 in 2019 is projected to live into their nineties and beyond. As medical advances continue to emerge and as more of us learn how to take better care of ourselves and maintain the right mindset about aging, it is likely that our projected lifespans will continue to increase.
Lifespan vs Healthspan
Lifespan refers to how long we’ll live. Of course, there is a difference between lifespan and healthspan. As we age, our bodies are going to start showing wear and tear. Our organs will quit functioning as well, and eventually, our bodies will not be able to keep going. We may live for several decades, but we may not live some of our years in good health.
Healthspan refers to the number of years we are able to maintain relatively healthy, functioning lives resulting in a shorter period of inevitable decline. Betty White has demonstrated that it is possible to have a long healthspan. In spite of his stroke, Kirk Douglas also continued to be active and live a relatively full life for more than two decades after his stroke. However, the average person only enjoys about 66 years of healthy living.
A plethora of research asserts that we have more control over our healthspan than we may have once believed. However, having a longer healthspan is something we must practice over the years. Certain life habits are associated with a longer healthspan including diet, exercise, a positive attitude, mental stimulation, having a purpose, social engagement, and some spiritual connection.
My grandmother, Marion, lived to be 96. At one time she was a heavy smoker and drinker. She owned a donut shop, at a lot of junk food and other fatty foods. On the plus side, she had a lot of friends and was a relatively positive person. But by her fifties, she started having serious health problems, including a couple of bouts with cancer. In her late fifties, she adopted a healthy lifestyle and became involved in a health-focused spiritual community. She lived the next 40 years of her life relatively disease-free. She continued to be very active and engaged until the last few months of her life. My grandmother was a healthy living role model for me and for many others who knew her.
Sarah Eloise also lived a long life. However, by the time Sarah was in her sixties, she had developed a sedentary lifestyle, gained a lot of weight, started falling frequently, and often complained about her various ailments. Her daughters did what they could to encourage her, but she wasn’t interested in doing anything that might improve her situation; she’d decided that getting older was hell, and that’s just the way it was.
By the time Sarah was in her early 70’s, she needed the support of an assisted living facility. She had become incontinent and wore adult diapers. She also needed help walking, and had to be regularly monitored. Even though she didn’t have better alternatives, she hated living in a facility. But sadly that is where my mother, Sarah, spent the last 16 years of her life. I wish my mother had enjoyed a longer healthspan. But ultimately, how she experienced the last couple of decades likely had a lot to do with the daily choices she made for herself.
To a large degree, the choices we make each day can significantly influence how we will live the rest of our lives. The choice is mine, it is yours, it is ours. May we choose wisely!