Friday, September 08, 2006

How to Grow Old

So what's the point? Why is an old guy like me trying to run marathons and sail his Laser in world championships? Why doesn't he just age gracefully, sipping margaritas while sitting on his deck, telling tall stories about the good old days, and grumbling about the decline of yacht racing?

Well, first of all, sailing a Laser in a blow, and traveling to regattas in cool places, and meeting other sailors from all over the world is a hell of a lot of fun. But during my recent break I came across a more worthy reason.

At my son's house last week I was reading an anthology of science writing -- The Best American Science Writing 2004 edited by
Dava Sobel. Hey I'm a scientist by education, a geek by nature, and a sucker for good writing in any form. (Sobel, by the way, is also the author of Longitude, a fascinating read for any sailor interested in the history of navigation.)

The essay that caught my attention was
How to Grow Old by Yale professor of medicine, Sherwin B. Nuland, in which he argues that the proper task of American medicine "is not the prolongation of life beyond the naturally decreed maximum span..... but its betterment." Nuland writes about the concept introduced by James Fries of Stanford known as "compression of morbidity" meaning the attempt to decrease the period of life during which any person is disabled.

In general, most of us are now fated to endure a final period of many years during which we become ever more frail, with the trajectory of decline sloping downward more markedly after about 50. Dr. Fries hypothesized that measures could be taken to change the long, gradually drooping arc with a pattern that more resembles a slightly sloping horizontal line ending in a rapid drop-off shortly before death.
In other words, it's better to have a long, healthy, active old age than to be a grumpy old geezer who can't climb upstairs without running out of breath or breaking a leg.

So what does all this have to do with sailing a Laser and running a marathon? Well, according to Nuland, study after study has shown that loss of muscle strength, not disease, is the major factor that limits the chances of older people living an independent life until death. And the natural decline in muscle strength that sets in after the age of 50 can easily be reversed through a simple training program.

Nuland has his own way of following this advice: "As I approach seventy-four I get to the gym about three times a week, pumping iron and dashing along on the treadmill (and concomitantly lusting after the bevy of tightly clad young women who are always there)."

Hmmm - it's true what they say about those Yale professors. (Momma don't let your baby girls grow up to be Yalies.)

So as Nuland sweats on his treadmill and (concomitantly) drools over the co-eds, I sail my Laser.

Nuland takes over three thousand words in his essay to make his point. Me, I have a bumper sticker on my car that says it all in eight words.

Cheat the nursing home. Die on your LASER.


Fuff said...

No reason why you shouldn't sail your laser, hiking pants and all, for as long as you ever want to. The psychological rewards involved with sailing far outweigh the physical.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't have to be a Laser... I've got a while to go before considering myself old..but think any sailboat will do quite nicely...

Zen said...

We age with the passing of days...
We grow old when we stop trying to achieve.

Carol Anne said...

Zen, that is so beautiful, and so very, very true. I also like Jimmy Buffet's line: "I'd rather die while I'm living than live while I'm dead."

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