To what age would you like to live?

I love talking to community groups about aging. I always as this question. The answers often vary by the age of the respondent.

When talking to students, a common response is “100” or some other large number. Older adults sometimes give a number, but more often speak about functional health and quality of life. “As long as I can still…”

When I get both answers in the same presentation, I have a perfect opening to talk about the difference between “lifespan” and “healthspan.” The former is about the total number; the latter is about function and personal well-being.

I spoke to a group of retirees earlier this year. A man in his early 70’s answered by saying: “As long as I can talk and feed myself.” What mattered to him was the ability to interact with others and demonstrate independence a most basic task – eating. A woman in her 60’s raised her hand in reaction: “That’s not nearly enough for me. I need to walk, drive, travel… and take in all life has to offer.”

Two people, two definitions of healthspan. We know a lot about quality of life in aging. Literally thousands of studies have touched on this topic. We know relatively little about how people understand healthspan. This is a topic ripe for research and one that I plan to study further.

Tom Meuser, PhD, Director, CEAH