The American Heart Association's new 10-year goals are extremely ambitious: to extend healthy life expectancy for people everywhere by 2030.
These goals are critical because, after decades of healthy life expectancy growing, statistics indicate a slowdown or even a reversal of the trend. In short, many people are getting sicker younger and dying younger.
And that's why the AHA is dedicating its work for the next decade to healthy life expectancy – which means not just living longer but living longer and healthier, without the painful late-life health struggles so many face.
The goals, announced Wednesday, call for increasing healthy life expectancy from 66 to at least 68 years in the U.S. and from 64 to at least 67 years worldwide.
The AHA plans to work with organizations and communities worldwide to reach these goals. The top priority will be to address the health inequities that result in poorer disease outcomes, higher mortality rates and shorter healthy life expectancies among marginalized groups.
“We believe every person should enjoy health and well-being no matter their age, gender, race or even the ZIP code in which they live,” said Dr. John Warner, a past president of the association and lead author of a new AHA presidential advisory on the subject. “We know inequities exist even to that level – from one block of a city to another.”
Consider this example: A newborn in a North Philadelphia neighborhood with predominately poor and black residents has a life expectancy 20 years shorter than a newborn in a largely white area 4 miles away.
“Sometimes parents are more worried about whether they can feed their children anything, much less whether it's healthy,” added Dr. Robert A. Harrington, the current president of the AHA and chairman of the Department of Medicine at Stanford University. “If you have high blood pressure, you shouldn't have to worry about whether to pay rent or buy your medicine.”
That's why one focus will be addressing what are known as the social determinants of health. These factors that significantly impact well-being include access to health care, healthy food, clean water, clean air, housing, education and safe environments for physical activity.
Some contributors to healthy life expectancy in the U.S. have already improved in the past decade. Adults are more active, and people overall are eating healthier, smoking less and better controlling their cholesterol. But that's offset by major setbacks in other critical areas – especially among young people, increasing their risk of poor health at earlier ages.
According to the AHA's 2020 Heart & Stroke Statistics:
- Only 1 in 4 U.S. students get their recommended one hour a day of at least moderate physical activity.
- Nearly 40% of U.S. adults and almost 20% of young people are obese.
- Vaping is an epidemic among young Americans.
- There are still more than 1 billion tobacco users worldwide, and at least 80% of them live in low- or middle-income countries.
- Type 2 diabetes prevalence more than doubled between 1990 and 2017 in the U.S.
Among the levers identified for bringing about change are public health policies such as taxes on sugary drinks and the broader adoption of healthy behaviors.
New research results from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health indicate just how effective certain behaviors can be. The research suggests that by adopting at least four of the following five habits, women can extend their healthy life expectancy after age 50 by about 10 years, and men can add about eight years:
- Eating a diet high in plants and low in fats
- Getting moderate to vigorous exercise several hours a week
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Not smoking tobacco
- Limiting alcohol consumption to no more than one drink a day for women and two for men
The AHA's goal is ultimately nothing less than a healthier world, added Harrington.
“This is so much more than just wanting people to live to a ripe old age,” he said. “We want them to live healthier, longer. And we're dedicating ourselves to achieving just that over the next decade.”
For more information, check out the AHA's presidential advisory, outlining its efforts to improve healthy life expectancy worldwide, and the Association's just-published Heart & Stroke Statistics – 2020 Update, showing that heart disease and stroke deaths continue to decline, but that the trend has slowed significantly in recent years.