From Lifespan to Healthspan: Brain Scientists Tap Into The Secrets Of Living Well Longer

Yolan­da Esparza (right) and Mary Lyons (left) con­tin­ue their 2‑mile group trail ride orig­i­nat­ing from the Con­ley-Guer­rero Senior Activ­i­ty Cen­ter in Austin, Texas, on Dec. 3, 2019. (Julia Robin­son for KHN)


AUSTIN, Texas — Retired state employ­ees Vick­ey Ben­ford, 63, and Joan Cald­well, 61, are Gold­en Rollers, a group of the over-50 set that gets out on assort­ed bikes — includ­ing trikes for adults they call “three wheels of awe­some” — for an hour of trail rid­ing and camaraderie.

I love to exer­cise, and I like to stay fit,” said Cald­well, who tried out a recum­bent bike, a low-impact option that can be eas­i­er on the back. “It keeps me young.”

Ben­ford encour­aged Cald­well to join the orga­nized rides, which have attract­ed more than 225 rid­ers at city rec cen­ters and senior activ­i­ty cen­ters. The cyclists can choose from a small, donat­ed fleet of recum­bent bikes, tan­dem recum­bents and tricycles.

With seniors, it’s less about trans­porta­tion and more about access to the out­doors, social engage­ment and qual­i­ty of life,” said Christo­pher Stan­ton, whose idea for Gold­en Rollers grew out of the Ghisal­lo Cycling Ini­tia­tive, a youth bik­ing non­prof­it he found­ed in 2011.

But that’s not all, accord­ing to brain sci­en­tists. They point to anoth­er impor­tant ben­e­fit: Exer­cis­ing both body and brain can help peo­ple stay health­i­er longer.

The new think­ing about aging con­sid­ers not just how long one lives, but how vibrant one stays lat­er in life.

If you’re liv­ing, you want to be liv­ing well,” said Tim Peter­son, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of inter­nal med­i­cine at the Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty School of Med­i­cine in St. Louis. “Most peo­ple who were inter­est­ed in life span and were study­ing genes — which con­trol life span — switched to ‘healthspan.’”

Healthspan,” a coinage now gain­ing trac­tion, refers to the years that a per­son can expect to live in gen­er­al­ly good health — free of chron­ic ill­ness­es and cog­ni­tive decline that can emerge near life’s end. Although there’s only so much a per­son can do to delay the onset of dis­ease, there’s plen­ty that sci­en­tists are learn­ing to improve your chances of a bet­ter healthspan.

The work takes on spe­cial res­o­nance in light of a new report pub­lished in the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion show­ing that life expectan­cy in the Unit­ed States has decreased in recent years. A rise in midlife mor­tal­i­ty (ages 25 to 64) has dragged down the over­all expectancy.

The idea is to make peo­ple pro­duc­tive, health­i­er and hap­pi­er longer and more capa­ble tak­ing care of them­selves,” said Andreana Haley, a psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin who is among this breed of researchers work­ing to under­stand healthspan. “We now live a long time with a lot of chron­ic dis­eases, and it’s not fun. It’s cost­ly — in terms of pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, care­giv­ing respon­si­bil­i­ties, cost of health care.”

Haley, who col­lab­o­rates with exer­cise phys­i­ol­o­gists, nutri­tion­ists, behav­ioral neu­ro­sci­en­tists and physi­cians, said researchers from many oth­er dis­ci­plines are also study­ing healthspan, such as nurs­es, speech pathol­o­gists and pharmacists.

Their work is inspired by an aging U.S. pop­u­la­tion with chang­ing needs. Accord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau, 10,000 peo­ple a day turn 65, the nation’s fastest-grow­ing pop­u­la­tion segment.

We have a lot of peo­ple who will need to be tak­en care of in the next 50 years,” she said, “and few­er young peo­ple to do the care.”

Haley, with UT’s Aging and Longevi­ty Cen­ter, focus­es her work on midlife, which she defines as ages 40 to 60, a time when health choic­es can have a big impact on old­er years. She’s espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in brain health.

Her team is col­lab­o­rat­ing with UT’s Human Laser Lab to pilot the use of low-lev­el light ther­a­py to increase brain ener­gy and improve cog­ni­tive performance.

Because of this close brain-body con­nec­tion, any degen­er­a­tion in the brain affects not only cog­ni­tive func­tion but also areas that con­trol weight, appetite, per­son­al­i­ty, mood and blood pressure.

Online games and brain-train­ing exer­cis­es have become pop­u­lar as anoth­er way to keep the brain sharp.

How­ev­er, research on brain train­ing reflects mixed results, includ­ing a study pub­lished last year in the jour­nal Neu­ropsy­cholo­gia, which “calls into ques­tion the ben­e­fit of cog­ni­tive train­ing beyond prac­tice effects.”

Still, aging experts urge peo­ple as they age to work to keep men­tal­ly active, as well as phys­i­cal­ly active, to length­en their healthspan.

One of the country’s largest con­tin­u­ing-care com­pa­nies, Acts Retire­ment Com­mu­ni­ties, offers res­i­dents week­ly social-based class­es for brain fit­ness and mem­o­ry devel­oped by Cyn­thia Green, an assis­tant clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of psy­chi­a­try at Mount Sinai in New York City. Green said her brain health approach, avail­able since 2015, is offered at 150 retire­ment com­mu­ni­ties around the country.

Some of the Acts com­mu­ni­ties are par­tic­i­pat­ing in a two-year study about mem­o­ry improve­ment super­vised by a researcher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alabama.

Helen Marn­er and her hus­band, Jim, both 76, are study par­tic­i­pants at Indi­an Riv­er Estates, an Acts com­mu­ni­ty in Vero Beach, Fla.

I’m always inter­est­ed in bet­ter­ing my health, my brain and my body,” Helen Marn­er said. “I’m inter­est­ed in keep­ing myself as alive and cur­rent and bright as I can.”

Marn­er bikes, swims and attends exer­cise class­es. The for­mer kinder­garten teacher also sings in two choirs, designs and sews quilts, and is active around town as well as at Indi­an Riv­er Estates.

Mary Beth Val­lar, 74, and her hus­band, Bill, 88, joined the study at Vero Beach.

We fig­ured it couldn’t hurt,” Mary Beth Val­lar said. “They’re teach­ing us cer­tain tech­niques to remem­ber people’s names and remem­ber lists and remem­ber sequences. Their tech­niques are very helpful.”

To remem­ber a list, tech­niques include tak­ing a men­tal snap­shot of it, orga­niz­ing the items into cat­e­gories or link­ing one word on the list to anoth­er. As for names, said Robin Leatherow, the Vero Beach community’s fit­ness direc­tor, a cre­ative strat­e­gy could be mak­ing up a sto­ry in your mind about the name or repeat­ing it to yourself.

There’s a lot of dif­fer­ent things you can do for brain health,” said There­sa Per­ry, Acts’ cor­po­rate direc­tor of well­ness ser­vices. “One is to engage with oth­er peo­ple. We thought it would be good for our res­i­dents and bet­ter than sit­ting in front of a com­put­er and play­ing games by yourself.”

Because research shows that peo­ple who stay active and exer­cise their brain “tend to be health­i­er and have bet­ter brain func­tion and will be phys­i­cal­ly health­i­er because of the brain-body cir­cuit­ry,” the recent shift to improve healthspan makes sense, said Peter­son, of Wash­ing­ton University.

It’s qual­i­ty of life ver­sus quan­ti­ty of life,” he said. “It’s prob­a­bly as sim­ple as that.”


Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nation­al health pol­i­cy news ser­vice. It is an edi­to­ri­al­ly inde­pen­dent pro­gram of the Hen­ry J. Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion which is not affil­i­at­ed with Kaiser Permanente.

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