We are all familiar with the idea of lifespan, which is simply the period of time that a dog or person is alive. As dogs and people age, they may acquire illnesses or injuries that prevent them from participating in normal mental, physical or social activities. This can lead to reduced quality of life in advanced years. Healthspan is a new term that describes the period of life during which a dog or person is active, healthy, and feeling good. Longer healthspan does not require longer lifespan. It simply means that a dog or person has an improved quality of life for more of the years of life available.
A growing focus of aging research is to preserve the full spectrum of health and activity for as long as possible. Many people say that they’d rather have excellent quality of life for fewer years than live to a very advanced age with illness, injury or diminished capacity for regular activities. Aging research now seeks to extend healthspan rather than to treat age-related disease after it has already begun.
To understand healthspan, it is necessary to describe good health, which is far more than just the absence of disease. Descriptions of good health can include measures of physical activity, social activity, cognitive activity, and activities of normal daily life. Many of these are well-described in humans and can be assessed through validated questionnaires and physical tests that a gerontology specialist physician can administer during a senior person’s medical examination. These tests make it possible to compare a given patient to the average for her age, to determine if she is aging well or poorly. If a person does not complete these tasks as well as her peers, targeted interventions such as physical or occupational therapy, nutritional changes, or enhanced social opportunities can be used to improve her quality of life—in other words, to lengthen her healthspan.
To build our understanding of healthspan for dogs, the Dog Aging Project is developing corresponding questionnaires and physical tests that owners and veterinarians can use with senior dogs. An improved description of the normal aging process for dogs of diverse sizes and types will enable us to find targeted interventions that can improve the quality of life for dogs who are falling behind their peers. Improving healthspan for dogs means happier dogs and happier humans because we can share many more adventures together!