As global lifespans continue to increase, more attention is being paid to healthspan – the number of years spent in good health, free from chronic disease and disability. Unfortunately, healthspans are not increasing at the same rate as lifespans, leading to more years spent in poor health towards the end of life. This growing gap between lifespan and healthspan is a worldwide phenomenon, but countries like Singapore are making strides to understand and address it through research, preventative care, and precision medicine.
Defining Lifespan vs Healthspan
While lifespan refers simply to the average life expectancy or number of years someone lives, healthspan is a measurement of quality of life during those years. As Professor Andre Maer, Director of the Centre for Healthy Longevity at NUS Yong Lulin School of Medicine explains, healthspan can be calculated in two main ways. One method looks at the age when someone first develops a major age-related disease like diabetes or hypertension. The second calculates disability-adjusted life years based on the degree of disability and need for assistance with daily living activities. By either metric, Singaporeans currently have an average healthspan about 10 years less than their 84 year lifespan.
The Need to Differentiate Lifespan and Healthspan
It’s important to separately measure lifespan and healthspan because simply living longer doesn’t necessarily mean living better. As we age, we accumulate cellular damage and deteriorate in bodily functions, increasing our risk of chronic diseases. But we can live for years with manageable age-related illnesses without necessarily being disabled. It’s often not until multiple severe diseases or a major health event like a stroke occurs that disability sets in. Understanding the gap between lifespan and healthspan helps identify opportunities to compress morbidity – reducing the time spent in poor health at the end of life.
Singapore’s Healthcare System Preparedness
While no country can completely escape population aging, Singapore’s healthcare system is relatively well prepared compared to other nations. A growing proportion of healthcare spending is going towards preventative care – around 6% versus only 3% in many other developed countries. Efforts to track population health metrics like lifespan and healthspan, research aging mechanisms, and pilot innovative care models also position Singapore at the forefront of addressing this challenge. But there is still substantial room for improvement to further compress morbidity and extend healthspans.
Moving Towards Precision Prevention
Basic lifestyle measures like sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise form a good foundation for maintaining health with age. But Professor Maer emphasizes the need to now go beyond generalized population health advice and offer more personalized precision prevention programs. Factors like genetics, chronic disease risk profiles, and microbiome composition mean optimal lifestyles will differ across individuals. Developing individually tailored plans for nutrition, activity levels, sleep targets and even potential supplements or drugs to mitigate aging processes can help people maximize their chances of staying healthy.
Democratizing Healthy Longevity
Precision prevention and longevity medicine interventions hold great promise, but it will be crucial to ensure equitable access across socioeconomic groups. Treatments perceived as anti-aging ‘magic bullets’ are already available to wealthy individuals willing to pay, though their efficacy remains unproven. Government policy and public health systems like Singapore’s will need to establish rigorous evidence behind emerging therapies and translate validated approaches into clinical practice guidelines. Doing so can help distribute the benefits of increased healthspans widely through the polyclinic networks most citizens rely on.
While living longer is a remarkable achievement of modern times, simply extending lifespans means little if those extra years are burdened with poor health. Singapore is making important strides in measuring healthspans, understanding aging mechanisms, and pioneering precision prevention techniques. Continued efforts to establish evidence, translate research into clinical practice, and proactively keep populations healthy can help narrow the lifespan-healthspan gap and ensurelonger lives really do mean better lives.