Another year, now one of many for me, is about to pass. Life flows incessantly forward. More than ever, I’m thankful for every moment in the present, wanting to indulge, pamper, and exhaust it for its sensory fullness, or like a bowl of chocolate ice cream topped with fresh strawberries, swirling its sweet coldness slowly in my mouth, titillating my tastebuds, in vain effort to prolong its goodness.
I wake to day, rejoicing in its newness, a privilege I no longer take for granted.
Recently I’ve been in contact through Facebook with a member of my 1958 class at Newburyport High School in Massachusetts. It turns out she’s also the class secretary. The other day, she shared that of the 158 graduates, 51 have died. There might be more.
In February I turn 77, so I found this news sobering.
I don’t know how I even got this far. The average lifespan for males in the U. S. is 76.3. My once older brother, so full of life, died on his birthday. He was 47. I’ve had friends who died younger.
There’s no rhyme or reason, no logic you can apply. So much of life is simply a matter of accident, or having luck on your side. Contingency, or incertitude in the weave of randomness, defines the wise among us in a cosmos absent of Mind.
On several occasions, I’ve missed death by inches, or like in Maryland in 1983 when I foolishly tried to pass a lumbering tractor trailer going up a steep hill, only to find another vehicle in the outside lane coming at me at rocket speed, forcing me to apply the gas pedal for all I was worth and thread the needle, barely, while in my ears, the scream of tires from a careening car, struggling for control.
I taught poetry for some forty years and I know full-well its bottom line is mortality. Think Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson and Hopkins.
Yesterday, I came upon Stephen Batchelor’s thoughtful, eloquent summation on life’s ephemerality in my reading:
Life is a groundless ground: no sooner does it appear, than it disappears, only to renew itself, then immediately break up and vanish again. It pours forth endlessly,
like the river of Heraclitus into which one cannot step twice. If you try to grasp it, it slips away between your fingers (Confession of a Buddhist Atheist).
And so back to the moment, this moment, its showering of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
In my last post, “We are all Ponce de Leon” (August 13), I noted the robust euphoria increasingly prevalent in medical circles that perhaps in the next 25 years, given science’s increasing sophistication in manipulating the DNA’s genetic formulae, many of humanity’s worst diseases like cancer and arteriosclerosis will be harnessed, if not eliminated. One of its principal advocates is Dr, David Augus, whose best selling book, auspiciously titled, The End of Illness, aggressively pursues this notion. In Hamlet mode, it’s something to be doubtfully wished, but unfortunately untrue. Served up in a specious brew, it trivializes the idiosyncratic nature of disease, its pernicious fall out in anguish and grief; above all, the individuality of each victim.
We live continuously in a biological world fraught like life at large with unknowns, randomness and the onset of new specters replacing those we’ve vanquished. While the incidence rates for heart attack and stroke have indeed lessened, high blood pressure and diabetes are way up and cancer abounds (Merck Institute of Aging and Health). If longevity has increased, it’s primarily due to the drop in child mortality and not medical breakthroughs.
Children still get cancer, a disease that we usually associate with aging, along with other afflictions. I lost two siblings, mere babes, from heart disease. I lost an older brother, doomed quickly by a brain tumor within a few months of his initial symptoms. He was 47. I love baseball. My favorite player, Lou Gehrig, succumbed to ALS at 41. I noted that Augus contradicts his own optimism in forecasting–“inevitable” is the word he uses–a pandemic that like the Spanish flu of 1918, will kill millions.
It’s good to dream, so long as it’s tempered by reality. While we’ve made progress in some areas of medicine, our best bet is probably a preventative approach, especially through lifestyle changes such as giving up smoking, monitoring our calorie intake, and exercising more. Ironically, though we live in an information age that staggers with its seeming infinitude, we still know relatively little as to the etiology of most of our diseases, treating symptoms, not causes.
All of us want to look, think, and feel young–the Ponce de Leon quest again–but let’s not promulgate nonsense. Aging is a fact we must live with, but it doesn’t have to mean a cane, incontinence, dementia, cancer, heart disease or stroke. The most recent research indicates that 70% of the ills of aging lies within our control. We can learn to live with it and live well and for a very long time.
I have some pointers, though not a panacea, that can help us in preventing or delaying many of our ills. They’re confirmed by recent studies of demographic specialists on longevity and you can find a succinct probing, in layman’s terminology, in Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones, 2nd ed., an analysis of five global hotspots for centenarians, places where men and women still toil in the fields though in their eighties and even nineties and cancer, heart disease and diabetes are rare.
The locales, by the way, are Sardinia, Okinawa, Loma Linda, CA (large Seventh Day Adventist population), the isle of Ikaria in Greece, and Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula. I should add that these biblical paradises are quickly succumbing to outsiders who bring fast foods and sedentary living with them, eroding aeons of life-enhancing routine and a quality of existence salient in simplicity and minimal stress.
Diet: In all of these Blue Zones, little meat was consumed, usually once a week or just on a festival occasion due to economics rather than choice. With Seventh Day Adventists, it was a conscious choice to exclude meat. Beans, whole grains, garden vegetables, nuts and fruit characterize the several cuisines, not processed or refined food products. I’ve always found it a good axiom: “If it’s white, don’t take a bite.” If giving-up meat isn’t a palatable option for you, then eat less of it and when you do, lean portions only, avoiding red meats in particular. Or try cutting out meat altogether two days a week. One other thing, but central: be careful about not only what you eat, but how much. Centenarians are far and away thin people.
Movement: People who work physically demanding jobs tend to live longer. New studies show that sitting more than two hours regularly can shorten life expectancy. For those of us whose lives are largely sedentary, it’s important to engage in aerobic exercise 30-minutes, 5 times a week, to lower bad LDL and raise HDL, the good kind. But even brisk walking (3 miles in 45 minutes) counts. Along with aerobic exercise, it’s wise to add weights to your regimen to protect and strengthen your muscles. Walk more, sit less. If space allows, do a garden. When traveling, use the motel’s exercise room or bring along resistance bands.
Connection: Those who have friends and a support network such as religion can provide are consistently happier people living longer lives. Pursue something you can commit yourself to. Find a congregation, book club or lodge; discover a cause; volunteer. Hang out with positive friends. Find something that makes you want to jump out of bed each morning.
Serenity: Those living long lives seem to have found mastery over stress. It isn’t that they don’t suffer stress, but that they’re able to transcend it, living lives of daily, defined routine, with simplicity a cornerstone. We help ourselves by reducing overload and unshackling ourselves from the wrenching worry synonymous with materialism, competition, and hurry. Yoga, Tai Chi and meditation–traditional staples of the East–reduce tension and lower blood pressure, that silent source of many of our diseases. Tranquil music muffles our pace; a good book provides timeout; a walk along a bubbling brook restores. Study quietness and discover peace and with it, longer life.
Family: Most centenarians center their lives around their families, marrying young and having children. There is a ritual of togetherness and mutual obligation that informs their lives. The elderly usually live with their children and thus fare better in their physical and mental capabilities. America, however, has been trending in the opposite direction, with active families finding quality time together difficult. Shared activities and a daily meal spent together are increasingly atypical now. Mobility often spaces family members widely apart. On the other hand, those living long, happy productive lives have made family a priority, live in proximity, and exhibit a we-ness in their interaction.
While there aren’t any guarantees, given life’s caprice, individuals mirroring these trademarks tend to fare much better in living long and healthy and productive lives.
As a 12-year old Florida school boy, I was introduced early to the 16th century Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, whom legend says came to Florida in quest of the Fountain of Youth. Drink or bathe in its waters and you could be young again. A story-line like this isn’t unique, finding its replay in myth and legend throughout the world.
Its insistence doesn’t surprise us at all, since it mirrors our consummate dream to stay young, not for its own sake, but because we associate youth with beauty, vigor, and libido, or from another angle, the absence of chronic ills like coronary disease, cancer, arthritis, and God only knows what, that often define our later years. All the parts are new and they work well and at 25 we may sometimes think ourselves immortal. We dream not just ordinary dreams, but visionary ones that say I can and I will.
Sooner or later, we are all Ponce de Leon, clutching to “the splendors in the grass” (Wordsworth). Our ads promulgate our folly with promised effulgences of youth’s attributes, abolishing gray, dissolving winkles, restoring passion.
But even medicine itself increasingly wanders into the Ponce de Leon camp these days, some doctors proffering we may soon banish the ills of our human sojourn, advancing our life span dramatically into the 100 year range what with the promise of genetics making individualized therapies possible, perhaps a pill as it were targeting your specific ill, say cancer.
This is pretty much the message of Dr. David Agus’ fascinating The End of Illness, sort of what we do now at the car shop or electronics outlet, plugging into a computer that in seconds spits out solution. He tells the story of 44-year old Bill Weir, host of ABC’s Nightline, who volunteered to go live, or cameras rolling in prime time, as the newest medical technology imputed his medical data at USC University Hospital.
It was the whole works, including not only blood tests and CT scans, but DNA analysis to assess his hereditary risk for illnesses such as heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, colon cancer and about 32 other disease scenarios. A CT uncovered substantial calcium build-up in Weir’s coronary arteries, narrowing his arteries and portending a possible heart attack in the next several years. He had seemed a very healthy man until testing found him out.
The point is that we can increasingly predict and find impending diseases, and employing intervention therapy, reduce if not eliminate, their threat. Because of the high expense, sounds to me like you want to make sure you and your loved ones have the best possible medical coverage. In the end, prevention may well be less costly than treating a patient with cancer, heart disease or diabetes.
Here I agree with those in Agus’ camp. Take those prescribed pills, undergo the recommended testings, etc. Consider pancreatic cancer, for example, a disease that takes no prisoners and recently killed actor Patrick Swayze, astronaut Sally Ride, and Apple’s Steve Jobs. It’s an insidious illness that manifests its symptoms when it’s usually too late. Still, you can undergo an annual complete abdominal ultrasound, MRI, or CT and gain a chance to nip the culprit in the bud.
But do I think medicine in the next 25 years will largely eliminate illness? I will only say I think the jury’s still out on this one, though I’m doubtful. There is the expense; human inertia; new diseases in an increasingly global village appearing, impervious to our best antibiotics and the lengthy interval in developing new ones. Even Agus contradicts his own optimism in predicting the inevitability of a pandemic:
The swine flu scare that occurred in 2009 will someday be dwarfed by a real epidemic that will spread rapidly through virgin immune systems and kill millions in its path (as happened, for example, in the flu epidemic of 1918, when an estimated 50 million to 100 million people died) (p. 277).
And I think the title of his book extravagant. It may spawn sales, but little else, for fragile beings that we are, fraught with mortality, we share the fate of all living creatures, governed in the end by entropy. We will never arrest illness completely, though we may at times lessen its impacting, and even its timing, by employing health enhancing strategies that will also lend quality to our lives.
At present, the American medical establishment is in breakdown mode. While heart disease has shown a decrease, cancer continues to plague us. Apart from disease, our doctors kill up to 200,000 patients yearly by way of medical mistakes; 50 million of us have no insurance; 25 million of us are underinsured. Meanwhile, our unhealthy lifestyle continues to menace both our health and our wallets. We have more diabetics than ever, for example. Many of us are just plain fat.
I’d like to continue this subject in a later post and tell you things you can do specifically to help safeguard the health of yourself and loved ones, though I can’t promise you centenarian status. Only 1 in 20,000 achieves that!