By Adam Van Deusen

Aging care advancements have led to Americans living longer lives, but more of their lives are spent with potentially agonizing disabilities. We are giving the elderly longer lives but leaving them in poorer health conditions. There are so many opportunities to explore ways to keep aging people healthy for as long as possible, but the data show a rising disconnect in healthspan for the elderly population.

Longevity is typically discussed in terms of an individual's lifespan, or the years they are expected to live. However, this data point does not tell the full story of how one might enjoy their life or spend their money during their later years. Instead, healthspan, often defined as the number of years an individual is healthy and able to do the activities they choose, can show how well a person is living rather than just whether they are alive.

According to researchers at the University of Washington, the estimated proportion of life spent in good health among Americans fell from 85.8% in 1990 to 83.6% in 2021. The same data set showed that even though average life expectancy rose in this period from 75.6 years to 77.1 years in 2021, the number of healthy years declined slightly from 64.8 years to 64.4 years.

The average estimated gap between Americans' overall years and good health years expanded from 10.8 years to 12.7 years during this same period. Americans are spending more time in an unhealthy state.

Researchers cite a couple of primary reasons for the growing lifespan-healthspan gap. On the more positive side, Americans' increasing lifespan means that there are more opportunities to develop an age-related condition - whereas an individual might have died quickly of heart disease or cancer in previous years, they could live longer now. However, other conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and substance-use disorders are becoming more prevalent at earlier ages in the United States and can also lead to a shorter healthspan. An alarming 27% of U.S. adults had multiple chronic conditions in 2018, compared to 22% in 2011, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Notably, these chronic conditions not only can affect the physical health of those who suffer from them, but also their overall well-being; a 2022 study found that having a substantial health problem reduces life satisfaction more than losing a job or becoming widowed, divorced, or separated.

In sum, the concept of healthspan suggests that two individuals could have the same lifespan but very different experiences within it. In a financial planning context, while knowing a client's estimated lifespan can help with planning projections (to ensure they do not run out of money), understanding their healthspan can help inform their potential future spending trajectory and income needs. While clients in good health might have significant spending on travel, those with a chronic illness might have fewer lifestyle expenses but higher medical bills!

Read Your Healthspan Is As Important As Your Lifespan – And It's Declining.

The above originally appeared in ‘Weekend Reading for Financial Planners’ on on Feb. 2, 2024, and is reprinted here with permission.

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About the author: Adam Van Deusen

Adam Van Deusen, CFP, is an Associate Financial Planning Nerd at He previously worked at a financial planning firm in Bethesda, Maryland, and as a journalist covering the banking and insurance industries. Outside of work, he serves as a volunteer financial planner and class instructor for non-profits in the Northern Virginia area. He has an MA from Johns Hopkins University and a BA from the University of Virginia. He can be reached at [email protected].

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