Wednesday 20 January 2016

Aging, According to Western Medicine

For most of my life, people have been surprised when they discovered my age, thinking that I am about 10 years younger. I can still surprise people, but now that ten-year genetic gift no longer makes me look young, just less old. I have to admit that my body, which I've always considered a temple even if I never treated it that way, could use a new coat of paint and few new shingles. But, even before pretty young girls started calling me "Mister," I was old in the eyes of Western Medicine.

Physical signs that you are dying start sooner and come on quicker than you might expect. For most of us, it's a shock, and is a bit frightening, not to mention embarrassing. But, while you may struggle, Western Medicine is comfortably resigned to the debilitating affects of your old age. Though your condition is both chronic and terminal, it's a less troublesome time, from your doctor's point of view because for every finicky complaint there is a simple diagnosis: old. That first "old" diagnosis is an "I-told-you-so" moment for those entrenched in Western Medicine which has had it's eagle-eyes on you for quite some time, while it perched above you ready to swoop down and offer you hundreds of chemical remedies.

For me, the first signs of wear began suddenly, at the age of 40. One day I woke up without the ability to read the tiny, printed instructions on things I'd purchased at the hardware store. For a time, I got along just assuming everything was dangerous. I bought dollar store magnifying glasses. So long as I never carried a pair with me, I felt that meant that my eyesight was still 20/20-ish. Eventually, I had surrounded myself with magnifiers; stuffed between couch cushions, on top of the toilet paper roll, on shelves, on tables, in cupboards, drawers, and even on top of the fridge. If my desk lamp had been halogen, turning it on might have set the whole place on fire. When I started stacking pairs on top of one another and had run out of nose, I decided it was time to visit an optometrist.

"Why is this happening to me?" I asked.

The young doctor chuckled and offered this detailed explanation: "Your eyes are more than forty years old," in a tone the exact opposite of the one used when evaluating a bottle of fine Scotch. I was tempted to point out that the pyramids still stand and they are more than 4000 years old, but somehow, the fact that I am younger than many buildings did not seem like a powerful argument. Also working against me was the fact that pyramids are often referred to as "ancient" and "ruins."

ME: "Are there some exercises I could do?"

OPTOMETRIST: "Many." Then, after waiting for my eyes to light up with hope: "Your abysmal eyesight should not affect your ability to exercise," he added, wryly.

ME (resisting the urge to send him straight to bed without supper): "I mean, is there something I can do to improve my eyesight?"

YOUNG WHIPPER-SNAPPER: "Of course. Fill this prescription for glasses."

Naturally, I did what any smart consumer would do when unsatisfied with a medical diagnosis. I got a second opinion. I'm sure that Google would have steered me right, but back then, there was only Yahoo. Based on Yahoo's opinion, I bought a book and a juicer. I drank lots of fresh carrot juice and did eye exercises. The exercises gave me headaches. From the carrot juice I gained a coppery glow and diarrhea. Also, a distaste for carrots—and juicers.

The fact that he was right did not make the young optometrist's advice any more amusing or agreeable. I pegged him at about 25, at that time, and it heartens me to know that he has now reached forty, himself. I finally understand the old adage that revenge is a dish best served cold... because it takes so long to prepare.

I give blood regularly and, before every donation, they measure blood pressure. Over the years, I watched the readings climb until, when I was 45, it got so high that I could no longer donate. I guess I was like a massively over inflated balloon and they were afraid to prick me with a needle. I consulted a doctor.

"My blood pressure is high," I said.

"You have High Blood Pressure," he declared, putting capital letters on the words to make it official. 

"What can I do about it?" I asked.

DOCTOR: "Take this pill for the rest of your life."

ME: "What if I don't?"

DOCTOR: "Then your blood will continue pounding away at your internal organs and arteries until something bursts and you spend the rest of your life on dialysis, or dead."

I went straight home, delicately lay myself down on the sofa as if an aneurysm bomb were strapped to the base of my brain, and thought about spending the rest of my life dead.

It seemed odd to me that my doctor had never suggested a change of diet, or exercise. I'll bet that when he first started his practice, diet and exercise was always his first advice. But, after thirty years attending patients who would rather take a pill than change their habits, he has become resigned to that fact, and no longer wastes time dispensing good, unheeded advice. 

I did a lot of reading on blood pressure and learned that about the only thing that has been shown to reduce it is a low-salt diet. I joined a gym in hopes that an increase in activity might compensate for the fact that the last thing on earth I wanted to lower was the salt in my diet. Three years later, I was in a lot better shape, but none of this had affected my blood pressure.

Eventually I realized how silly it was of me to resist popping a few grains of a chemical tested and approved by medical professionals when I would happily chug twelve ounces of soda pop on the basis that, though well known to be poison, it's relatively slow-acting and tasty. Reluctantly I filled my first til-death-do-us-part prescription. There could be no greater tribute to my love of salt.

Nothing yells "decrepit!" like sustaining injuries through sleep. When I was about 50, I awoke one morning with back spasms so painful that I was near tears. The doctor gave me a couple of pills for the short term and comforted me with the assurance that, though there was nothing she could do for me, many people my age live productive lives in chronic pain.
This is what Western Medicine thinks is normal for a 50-year-old.

I am a very typical patient in that when I have a complaint large enough to warrant a visit to a doctor, it always turns out to be something completely mundane with solutions that are simple and right out of the text books. Also, I'm not actually on Death's door, no matter what I saw on the Internet. But, I am atypical in that one of my core beliefs is that exercise is required to maintain health, and I am completely willing to exercise in order to avoid or repair injuries and debilitating symptoms, like chronic pain. I assume that this is so atypical that experienced doctors simply skip even hinting at a fitness regime.

For my birthday, my wife had given me a coupon for a massage and now seemed like a good time to redeem it. I rarely get massages, but when we do, it's always at a discount, through the West Coast College of Massage Therapy. It's not just because I'm miserly. I've known several graduates from that school and have been impressed by the depth of their training.

I went in hoping for a bit of relief and distraction, possibly at the hands of a winsome young girl who might light candles, put on soft music and gently kneed my body with her slender fingers, until my muscles turned to jelly, and pain became the last thing on my mind. When the receptionist showed me to the massage room and mentioned that "Greg" would soon arrive for my session, I clung to a thin strand of hope that she was an exchange student, and that "Greg" was a common female name in Sweden or Thailand.

Alas, Greg was a broad shouldered, strapping young man. But he quickly won me over. He began by asking me if I had any physical issues. I told him about my aching back. Being young, enthusiastic and not yet cynical, he spent more than an hour, examining and testing my musculature, flexibility and range of motion. Afterward, he did a couple of excruciating things which either relieved the pain I was currently experiencing or distracted me from that with new pain. He sent me home with a short list of exercises which he felt would hasten my recovery.

I did those exercises and was soon back to normal, which is abnormal, in the eyes of Western Medicine. The back injury was frighteningly painful and debilitating, so as further insurance, I increased my visits to the gym. Many years later, I am pain free and in better shape.

The most startling and disappointing sign I've had of aging is brittle teeth. The first time a tooth broke without reasonable cause, I hadn't had a cavity in more than 30 years. It's scary not being able to depend on parts you've always considered to be in prime condition.

My dentist is cool. He's ok with my calling him Dr. Z because I can't pronounce his last name—also, secretly, it makes me feel James Bond-ish which helps me to squeal in lower octaves, while he pokes my gums with dull needles. Dr. Z is one of those jovial, easy going guys you can talk to, like a golfing buddy who has erected a tent in your mouth.

Dr. Z: "What were you chewing on when this happened?"

ME: "Hewk."

Dr. Z: "Soup, huh. Well, welcome to your senior years." Diagnosis: old. "You might consider switching to astronaut food." Prescription: endurance.

ME: ???

Dr. Z: "Just kidding. You're not quite there yet. We'll fix you up, good as new. You'll soon be able to masticate whenever you feel the urge"

I don't believe that my age has much to do with my failing teeth. Because of all the fillings I received when I was a kid, my molars are, basically, 30-year-old metal with a thin veneer of enamel. The good news is that modern porcelain fillings are stronger than those old metal ones and look more natural. With each visit, my teeth grow stronger and my smile, more beautiful.

In the eyes of medical professionals, it seems, the primary cause of everything that goes wrong after the age of forty is having lived past the age of forty. And, to shore up this conviction, they prescribe noxious ointments that smell like decay, just in case you hadn't yet clued in that growing old stinks.


And, w
hile you're here...
Why not buy my time travel, action/adventure novel?

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