Lifespan vs. Healthspan

I’m often asked if it’s true that calorie restriction can result in a longer lifespan.

As with most questions like this, we need to dig a little deeper.

First, if we’re talking about going from chronically overeating (which results in weight gain) to restricting calories enough to lose weight, then of course, our chances of living longer improve.

As far as the impact of long-term calorie restriction, most of the research suggesting it results in a longer lifespan – in some cases up to 65 percent longer – comes from animal studies. And while animal studies can be useful, not everything that has been shown to improve health in animals is true for humans. After all, we’re not mice …

Second, would consuming, say, 25 percent fewer calories for a long period of time increase your lifespan in a meaningful way? I guess that depends on how you define “meaningful.” If that much of a calorie restriction resulted in your living six months longer, would it be worth it … even if the calorie restriction resulted in a colder than normal body temperature, slower metabolism and potentially reduced sex drive? 

That’s where I prefer to stress the difference between “lifespan” and “healthspan.” 

As in, it’s not so much how long we live, but how well.

And how healthfully.

As we get older, the goal should be to maintain our muscle mass, as well as our cardiovascular health and brain function … so we can stay sharp and continue doing all the activities we love as long as we’re alive.

We’re trying to avoid what the medical community refers to as the “marginal decade.” This is the decade of life when health declines and people require others to care for them.

When this happens, we can lose our independence, become more sedentary, and actually accelerate the decline.

Whether we live 80, 90, 100 years or more … the goal is to maintain our quality of life as long as possible.

Fortunately, there are a couple of simple, scientifically proven ways to maintain and improve our physical and emotional health, as well as our brain function:

Exercise: We’ve known for decades that exercise improves metabolic and  cardiovascular health, as well as lipid profiles, lean mass preservation as we age, and much more. Now, the research is clear that exercise can also enhance brain health and delay cognitive decline as we age. Exercise stimulates the body’s production of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which has been shown to stimulate the repair of damaged neurons and creation of new ones. For a 1-2 punch of body health and brain health, exercise is by far the best drug on the market.

Meditation: One of the best ways to enhance brain health, delay cognitive decline, and hold stress at bay is to meditate. Don’t overthink this. Meditation is nothing more than focusing your thoughts on one thing, and breathing. Take 10-20 minutes per day to put down your phone, close your laptop, and focus on your breathing. Unfortunately, modern humans spend way too much time in the sympathetic nervous system state (i.e. the stress-inducing “fight or flight” state). If we can consistently set aside a few minutes a day to activate the sympathetic nervous system (stress relieving), we’ll feel better, lose weight more easily, and enhance our brain health as we age.

If you’re looking for the “fountain of youth,” look no further than daily exercise and meditation. Your body and mind will thank you later.