I’ve lived with my body for almost 70 years, but recent events have made me feel I’m getting to know myself all over again. Let me explain.
In May I traveled with my sister to Norway for ten days. It was my first trip there and my sister’s second. We didn’t want to be part of a large tourist group, so we used a company to plan an entirely customized tour just for the two of us. We didn’t travel to the typical sites–fjords along the west coast. My sister had already seen those sights. Instead we traveled to parts of Norway that we know our ancestors came from, inland areas.
It was an absolutely wonderful trip.
We walked all over Oslo, Lillehammer, Røros, and Trondheim. Well, we walked less around Trondheim because my right heel hurt from all the walking we had done before. My self-diagnosis was tendonitis. I ruled out all the other possible causes for heel pain because I thought I knew what was involved in each of them. I wrapped my foot in ice packs, took anti-inflammatory drugs, and elevated my foot whenever we were in our hotel room. By morning my foot felt fine. I thought my heel just needed time to get better.
But I was wrong. By the time I returned home and saw a doctor, both heels hurt. The diagnosis was stress fractures in both my heels. For at least six weeks, I must cut back my activities, stay off my feet while they heal, and rely on a wheelchair when I must get around.
That’s when I was introduced to my new body. The almost 70-year-old one that I had been ignoring. The one where lowered calcium levels in my bones puts me at greater risk of more fractures. One where reduced muscle tone from decreased activity level, along with the number of prescription drugs I take, puts me at greater risk of falls–and broken bones.
The doctor who diagnosed the stress fractures introduced me to my new body. But the real learning came from a book for my book club: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. In his book, Gawande points out that the changes I am just beginning to see are part of the normal process of living when life expectancy extends beyond what we now call middle-aged. It wasn’t all that long ago that 40 or 50 years was all most people got to live. At some point, later for the lucky ones, something struck individuals that caused a rapid decline and death. People lived–until they died.
But medicine has changed so much that we have treatments for those “somethings.” Now, treatments allow people to recover from any number of accidents, conditions, and illnesses that previously were fatal. And that means the lucky ones live longer but have to deal with the conditions and illnesses–and their consequences.
We live long enough for our bones to lose the calcium needed to keep them strong. The enamel of our teeth, made of the hardest substance in the body, wears away. Our blood vessels, joints, the muscles and valves of our hearts, and our lungs absorb the calcium our bones stop accepting, causing stiffness. And because the vessels the blood flows through are among those that become hardened, lined with mineral deposits, the heart must work harder to move the blood throughout the body. The heart muscles thicken. But the rest of our muscles become thin.
And then there’s the brain. I knew ten years ago I started having trouble remembering names and sometimes even words. But I hadn’t realized that the brain actually shrinks over time. By my 70s, my brain will have shrunk enough that there will be an inch to spare between my brain and my skull. That leads to a greater risk of cerebral bleeding if the head is injured, such as during a fall.
Even worse, according to Gawande, “By age eighty-five, working memory and judgment are sufficiently impaired that 40 percent of us have textbook dementia.”
This is the new body I am getting to know. How you met yours yet?
If you’d like to know more about the company we used to plan our trip to Norway, add a comment to ask for details. I’ll get back to you.
Image credit for featured image: Jez Timms