The Death Curve

It’s really an “aging” curve, but I prefer “death” curve because it is more macabre. The sad truth is that life expectancy in the US is stagnant or even declining, in large part because of our poor health habits. My grandmother is 97, and still living on her own. She doesn’t drive, she’s losing her eyesight, but she maintains a reasonable quality of life. She’s on a solid curve. Dad died at 62, but up until the last few months he was extremely active and healthy. It was an excellent curve until cancer reared its ugly head. I’ve been pretty active over the past 2 weeks. I made a comment this morning about how my shoulder was bothering me and Lianne suggested that I take it easy. Dad would always say that the best way to overcome an achy joint or an aggravating injury was to go exercise it. He ended up having surgery on both shoulders, so maybe this isn’t the best medical advice, but I do think it is excellent life advice. I sounded like Dad when I responded to Lianne, “As soon as you quit doing stuff, you’re dying.” Jaron, ever the pragmatist, said, “We’re all dying.” Ok, he has a point, but it is possible to die healthy. That should be our goal. This chart shows the difference between dying healthy, and dying sick.

Death Curve

I broke my finger, and tore the mallet tendon last year while playing flag football around Thanksgiving. It was in a splint for 7 weeks, with the last joint completely immobile in order to heal the extensor tendon. When I took the splint off I could barely bend my finger. Every morning I’d wake up and painfully bend it and flex it as much as I could. I have full mobility again now, but even today, one year later, I can still feel a little tightness. The adage is true, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” Sunday afternoon, I sat on the couch after church thinking about our annual flag football game that was only an hour away. I just wanted to veg. Davin and I dragged a deer stand through our property for over an hour a couple of weeks ago, and my back is still stiff. Since then I’ve jogged, hiked, and climbed ladders and trees putting up Christmas decorations. I didn’t want to go “play” football on top of that. No, I wanted to sit on the couch and “watch” football. Instead, I flexed my back and leg muscles and managed to leverage myself off the couch. I used a little determination that afternoon. I’m glad I did.

Grandmother had major cancer surgery about a year ago. At 96 years old, the doctors determined she was healthy enough for the procedure. She told me that for weeks after the surgery she wanted to die. We talked with her on the phone shortly after her surgery and her speech was slow and slurred. She was weak and in pain. She couldn’t even lift her head. She wanted to go home. The doctors told her she needed to be able to walk on her own before they’d let her go home, but she could barely lift her arm, let alone stand and walk. She determined to walk again, or to die trying. The physical therapists came twice a day and she gradually improved. She told me it was the most difficult thing she had ever done. The progress was agonizingly slow, but instead of fading away, she gradually strengthened. Four months of rehab finally got her back on her feet and she was sent home. She is a testament to solid genes, perseverance, and determination.

My Dad inherited at least two of those traits from her. The week before he was admitted to the hospital for the final time, I was inspired to go over to Dad’s house early in the morning before work, and go on walks with him. I showed up the first morning and asked him if he was ready to go. He said, “No.” I was surprised and chatted with him a bit as we slowly walked out the front door. He said he was dreading it. Cancer had so decimated his body that he was without energy and motivation. Still, he fired up his fitness tracking app and we headed out. He could barely put one foot in front of the other. The confident, brisk moving 60 year old man was gone, replaced by a shuffling and stoop shouldered invalid.  This was a guy who regularly jogged 10+ miles a week throughout his life, sometimes more than 20 miles a week. Now, after rounding the bend just around the corner from his house, he was ready to turn around and head back. We got to the driveway and he stopped the fitness app. He looked at the results, paused, shook his head in mild disgust, and said, “Not even a half mile. That’s pitiful, isn’t it?” We walked three times before he was admitted to the hospital. Each time, he was ready to go, and we chatted as we slowly made our way down the block and back. He dreaded it, but he was always ready. Perseverance. Determination. That Saturday he drove down to the basketball courts for Saturday morning ball. He was moving so slowly that there was no way he could play. He picked up a basketball and tried to shoot it, but he couldn’t even get the ball up to the hoop. He tried though. In the hospital he consistently wanted to get out of the hospital bed and stand up. Dad had the perseverance and the determination. They held him in good stead for 6 decades. His death curve looked great. He lived the life that he had to its absolute fullest.

We start losing muscle mass around the age of 35. It’s called sarcopenia. This loss accelerates as we enter our 60s. The best way to stem this decline is through regular exercise. My grandmother is proof of our body’s incredible ability to rejuvenate and heal. Our culture tends to emphasize medication over discipline. I know that if I switch up my sleeping pattern it can lead to headaches. Last week I stayed up until midnight watching a football game I didn’t care about.  I got a headache the next day and knew that I could pop some ibuprofen to make it go away. Clogged arteries, cholesterol, diabetes, and cancer, in large part can be mitigated through exercise and diet. We should resist the siren song of modern medicine and work to improve our later years with good old fashioned discipline. Someone might say, “At some point your body starts wearing down. You can’t play sports in your 80s!!” My reply is, “Why not?” Let’s make that the goal. Do stuff and don’t quit. There are going to be days when we don’t want to move, like me on Sunday afternoon, and those days may become more frequent as we age. Let’s use determination and perseverance to push through. Exercise and activity is the elixir of life. It strengthens our bodies and our minds. We’ll still slowly slide down the death curve, but we can at least make it an enjoyable ride. Exercise truly is the closest thing we have to the fountain of youth.

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