What factors make us kick the bucket?

I hear so much about what risk factors there are to make us die sooner and all the things we should do or not do but because I like to research both sides of the story I always find things that contradict each other.

I’m coming round to the view that the overall risk really depends on where we are in our lives at any particular time. I don’t know if I can put this concept across well enough but I’ll try.

Mixed messages

Basically I see or hear about people who contradict the prevailing health advice all the time. People who smoke and drink all their life and make it to 80. People who eat terrible foods and are fine all the way until they pop their clogs. I also hear about people who are so ‘healthy’ that they die from hypersensitivity to some aspect of modern life such as antibiotics or pain killers.

For example, there is a constant debate over anti oxidants and oxidants, the prevailing wisdom is that high cholesterol particularly HDL (High Density LipoProtein) is bad, that saturated fats are bad. Yet there are still critics of this view. I’ve even heard of government organisations having to change their message when it offends important markets. That is certainly not the voice of reason though the same goes for science which is supposed to be about the unbiased search for truth, yet in scientific circles when you critique the prevailing view you’d better be on guard because you often get shot down.

My point is simply that, all this information and misinformation makes the issue so confusing because I don’t know who to trust and what ultimately to believe. It also leads me to believe that in terms of our understanding of our bodies we are nowhere near the understanding that physics has of the basic laws or what chemistry has of the bonds between molecules.

Proof is hard

Fundamentally, what holds us back is that Biology is essentially the study of living things and physics and chemistry are the study of dead things. Studying dead things is inherently easier than living things because;

  1. they aren’t changing while you study them.
  2. ethics living things can be hurt, dead things can’t. Mixing two chemicals together and measuring the stars don’t particularly hurt or offend people but changing the genome or testing on living things do.

So studying biology has inherently more challenges and greater complexity than chemistry and physics. We need to have fantastic technology which we’re only developing in this age (things like being able to document DNA and genomes) before we can begin to put it all together. However this is only just the start. In comparison with physics we may not even have reached the point where Newton described gravity. Maybe we aren’t even at the level of Copernican physics.

What I’m getting at is that in all that I’ve learnt I’m still often confused in as many areas as I’m confident. What I see and what I’ve learnt does point me to one possible general conclusion though.

Nature and nurture

Maybe the strength of our genes determines a basic strength of the body and mind we’re given. I include the mind because I do feel we get something of our mind from the way we’re put together. To get the whole you have also got to add up the effects of the environment, the food you ate when you grew up, the support you got, the happiness and stress you’ve had. All those things and others.

Basically consider yourself like a car. If you analysed a car you’d check it’s make and model so you’d know roughly what to expect. You’d know roughly how many miles the car should do before it will first break down and then ultimately be scrapped. But not all cars reached their full lifetime. Many are scrapped early.

Some, because of accidents. Some because they haven’t been taken care of. Some because they’re stolen. Some because the country they’re in wears them out quicker. Others last longer for the opposite reason.

The final straw

For those cars that aren’t stolen, or crashed and just get to live out their lives, what gets them scrapped? Well, cars are made up of lots of components but they’re generally designed for that particular car, barring the brake pads and tyres etc. So it doesn’t have to be the car as a whole that fails, more likely one or two major components like the clutch, engine, or gearbox that will wear out and the cost of fixing these items becomes too great. Particularly if more than one item fails or is close to failing at the same time.

For each different make and model of car, experts often tell you what components will generally fail more than others. It is often different for each manufacturer and model, but it also depends on the type of driver and where they do their driving.

The truth is that the same goes for humans because it depends what components we get, some have strong hearts but weak lungs, strong kidneys but weak livers. Some treat their body like a temple, some like a toilet.

All these things naturally have an impact on how long a car or a body will last and what point it will give out. But the key question is, at what point does the drastic event of death or serious illness occur?

Built to last

Well, just like many cars these days, our bodies are designed to survive no matter what they’re put through. Humans can survive famines, deserts, the Arctic and all other places, but quite often a number of events occur close to each other that ultimately create the chance for a serious event to occur.

The car

This is one simple story of how a car can fail:

You drive to work on the motorway each day. You develop a small crack in your exhaust from a stone chip hitting it at high speed as it’s thrown from your tyres. It’s in winter and there’s a sudden cold snap freezing your exhaust very quickly and making it brittle. You always drive early because your shift starts early so it’s much colder. On the coldest day your exhaust cracks and you break down. This event wasn’t bound to happen but it had high probability. If you were a gambling man you’d put money on it.

The human

I feel it’s the same with risk factors for humans when you consider the progression of diseases like heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and others. Some of us have a greater chance than others not just because of genes but because of the way we lead our lives. But why does each individual succumb? I think it ends up down to a set of events in each case and I think most of us get this idea, but is it a given that all this wear and tear builds up and finally gets too much for us when we’re old? Possibly, but I’m not convinced.

Just like with a car, many bodies with regular care and attention towards their own health can still be living happily well past the time their brethren have retired and gone. All because their owner did what was necessary to keep them running well. They were taken care of throughout their life and their owner learnt how to do it.

You may now start to understand why I don’t think that our DNA defines an exact age to die. What I do think is that as we get older our cells receive less ‘motivation’ to take care of themselves and by this I mean I think it takes more effort to keep yourself fit and healthy. Just like any device you own.

Does old mean weak?

But is it destiny that we’re so fragile in our senior years or is it that we just need to take better care of ourselves at that time?

I’ve seen 80 year olds fit as a fiddle, off on their skiing holiday and I’ve seen many others like them. They weren’t all fit when they were 20 and 40 though of course they may have gotten fitter when they were older. There are plenty of epidemiological studies showing that fitness, health, weight etc around time of death say the 10 – 15 years leading up to it is more indicative than these factors earlier in life. Smoking for example, if you haven’t smoked for say 20 years then apparently you have the same risk of cancer as others your age not greater.

Retirement plan

So I just feel that when you are young your body is much better at surviving. If you have the genes, environment and lifestyle that will get you to older age then when you get there you need to learn how to gamble. Learn how you can hold a strong, winning hand every day rather than a losing one. In short I feel you need a retirement plan

Eating well is great but sleeping well is completely ignored. Regular quality activity isn’t so well appreciated either. Eating gives you the nutrition, the raw materials, activity gives your body the impetus to build itself up and keep itself well maintained. Sleeping, on the other hand, is where your body repairs itself. It is important to note that hours and quality of sleep reduce as we age and and at the same time we also get less active. Which means that length and quality of sleep and amount of activity have some correlation. Adding to this I have also seen research that highlights that the symptoms of old age are very similar to the symptoms of years without much activity.

This is very much an on going area of study but the plain english explanation is that your body is always planning its maintenance and needs according to demand. If you don’t really do much with your body then it does not invest much in its strength and this is reflected in the repairs it undertakes.

Motivate your body to strengthen

A side note that makes the point is that during my degree I studied the latest research on Osteoporosis (brittle bone disease) where unfortunately many senior people are at much greater risk of bone fractures because their bones aren’t so strong any more. In terms of preventing the condition the evidence showed that people could have excellent nutrition but still have the disease. When regular activity was included the disease wasn’t as severe. When more intense activity was included particularly things that put a load on the bones and create impact, appeared to be the impact the activity placed on the bones that had the greatest protective effect. Of course these are elderly people so we’re not talking step aerobics or volleyball here. Instead for those guys that aren’t so nimble the load was simply from climbing stairs.

In general the story goes that for building your bones running is better than jogging which is better than walking. What does this tell you?

you can give your body fantastic materials (nutrition) to build itself but without the motivation or requirement (activity) to strengthen or maintain then it just won’t bother.

Sleep on it

As regards sleep, apart from the research that’s out there I’ve got a personal example that’s worth sharing. A few years back I was getting a pain in one of the bones on my ankle. I know I have a small amount of bone chipped off in there and I was worried this was rubbing against my ankle and slowly building up scar tissue and stuff that would eventually cause problems. I am a bit of a hypchondriac I know, but it went on for weeks and I couldn’t shift it. During this time I made sure I ate brilliantly, loads of fruit and veg etc and I rested. In terms of rest I didn’t do any sport for weeks. The result was that I was bored as hell during my rest period and in the end my ankle didn’t get better at all.

at the same time I had been sleeping just 6 hours a night for many years at the time and felt fine. I used to get 7-8 hours but even at weekends when I didn’t need to get up I still woke up early. So I thought I was fine. For some reason during this period when I had a problem with my ankle I suddenly became able to sleep for longer periods. I was getting a nice 7-8 hours sleep and felt better rested than I had for years. I remember it being a time when I was free of much of the pressure I was under the previous few years and I could feel my body and mind relaxing.

What is good recovery?

What amazed me was that within 2-3 days the problem was virtually gone and it turned out that the pain was nothing to do with eating well or resting by not playing sport instead it was entirely due to just sleeping better. So, how do I explain this with current theory. I’ve know for years since my A levels where I studied bio(logical) psychology that the body recovers during sleep and that this recovery takes longer in general than the mind. The mind takes around 5 hours or so I was told but the time the body takes depends on how much damage there is to fix. That is probably the same for the brain but it is just a small organ compared to the entire body and it’s not that differentiated.

Now for the few years previously I had not really been that active but at this point I was playing tennis almost every day, and I play pretty intensely, so the damage would probably be a lot.

Once I improved the quality and length of my sleep, recovering from injuries and general stress of the day became so much quicker and easier because I realised I needed to adapt my recovery and repair (sleep) to my lifestyle. If I don’t give my body long enough to repair then it’s just like any thing else the holes get bigger and bigger until they’re great big gaps and sometimes the damage is irreparable. However if I just keep a regular pattern of good sleep I’m right as rain through anything.

I’m rambling a bit but that’s because I like to explore this topic. I hope I’ve got part of the concept across. It may not be revolutionary but for me it’s very freeing. I do believe strongly that regular quality activity and sleep have a massive impact on our ability to maintain our bodies, (assuming we eat well enough but plenty of people are championing that). I just can’t put down all I’ve learnt about it at this point.

So I’m suggesting we die because our body, or one of it’s components, at that particular moment is unable to overcome the challenge it faces and that as we age our body finds it progressively harder to overcome what it faces.

Take a heart attack. A heart attack is generally caused when a blood vessel supplying the heart is blocked. They’re usually small vessels and the damage is related to the vessel blocked and what part of the heart it supplies. The larger the area the more the damage. So how can a clot form? Basically the blood vessels can become rigid and fail to repair themselves. Blood may clot in the cracks that can form. These clots can build up over time. This may be happening all around the body. Suddenly one of these clots breaks off and starts travelling the body. It could do it for years. At some point the blood clots on the heart blood vessels and the blood clot travelling in the blood get large enough that they form a blockage when they collide. That’s the standard explanation and it brings it right back to the mechanics of the body.

When you look closely though it may not be until the blood vessel becomes truly rigid that the clots are dangerous. This may happen later in life because the body isn’t maintaining itself so well and so the vessel become less elastic. It has been shown that older animals have more collagen in their muscles than younger ones which makes them less elastic. That could be true for blood vessels. It could be that the reduced activity in later years led to less flexible blood vessels increasing the risk of a clot.

Either way it’s just useful to break the body down in this way. Anyway I’ve rambled long enough so I feel I’ll end it there.

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What factors make us kick the bucket? first appeared on my original blog. Cell Your Sole is my new focus for health posts so I’m re posting relevant articles here.

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