Sunday, May 19, 2013

Making It To 120: Great News and a Barrel of Laughs at the Doctor's Office.

"Hey," said Rich at tennis the other day, "they found your baby picture." He handed me the cover of the May issue of National Geographic featuring a baby with the headline, "This Baby Will Live To Be 120."

Having just celebrated my 75th birthday on May 2, was Rich really telling me that my dream of making it to 120 is just that?

"You know, Rich," I said, putting my face and the cover side by side, "that's definitely me. I was wondering when somebody would come up with a baby picture of me. You have to admit, I was one cute little baby."

"Oh, definitely," Rich said.

I  showed the cover to the two other guys, Jim and Marty. Both scurried onto the tennis court. They weren't interested in my baby picture. Grrrr.

I went out on the court and took it out on the poor tennis balls.

At the top of this page, I do talk about making it to 120 (and the impossible odds against it) so, first chance, I got myself a copy of the May issue of National Geographic. The cover story by science writer Stephen S. Hall is entitled, "New Clues to a Long Life." The intro says: "You want to live to 120? And stay healthy? Genetic discoveries could make that wish come true."

Genes. Hmm. All of my attention, I have to admit, has focused on the usual suspects against leading a long, healthy, and happy life: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, lack of exercise. Of these, only high cholesterol has been a problem for me.

For the high cholesterol, my VA primary care doctor prescribed a statin (simvastatin) for me and I took the tablets for some months and then stopped. I just didn't like the idea. I told her that I wanted to try to lower my cholesterol through a major change of diet. She was skeptical, but open to seeing what I could do.

Though I have a sweet tooth, I cut out sweets like sherbet,cake and cookies. For breakfast, I replaced buttered toast with organic oatmeal sprinkled with milled flax seed, plus an orange. I cut my portions and stopped eating between meals. Over six months, I lost nearly 20 pounds.

At my November appointment, my total cholesterol was down significantly, but the LDL, the bad stuff, was way too high at 146. "It's going in the right direction," I said. "Give me another six months."

She went along. And for the next six months, I kept the same regimen except that I didn't starve myself the way I did before. I didn't need to lose any more weight. But I continued cutting out most  sweets and kept to a low-calorie diet.

Six months later, this May 14, having taken a blood test a few days before, I showed up for my scheduled appointment with my skeptical, "show me" VA primary care doctor. A visit to the doctor is normally serious. After all, what is at stake here is your health and sometimes your very life. Doctors and their staff are used to patients with serious health issues and worried faces. Very often they have to deliver bad news.

But my doctor's visit was actually a lot of fun. I was smiling -- and even joking -- the whole time. It started with the doctor's assistant giving me the preliminary. As she checked my body temp, heart rate, and blood pressure she kept saying, "Wow."

"You're how old?" she asked.

"I turned 75 on May 2."

"You know, when I went out to meet you, I was looking for an old man. And then I saw you bounding up to me. I thought there was a mistake."

"No, really."

"I hope you don't mind if I double-check. When were you born?"

"May 2, 1938."

She checked my personal data on the computer.

"You're right. Sorry, but those numbers are just surprising for your age."

"When are you going to stop talking about my age? I'm a young guy, for God's sakes."

She giggled. "Yes, you are."

When she was finished, in walked my all-business primary care doctor whose prescription for statins I had dared challenge. She had said that statins were a must to get my cholesterol down. I had said they weren't. And I told her that I was going to stop taking them and try to get my cholesterol down on my own. The difference, though certainly unusual, was completely civilized and even friendly.

The doctor gave me a quick "hi" and with a smile sat down at the computer. "I have something I have to take care of," she said. "Be right with you."

Those old days are long gone when doctors and patients had considerable face-to-face interaction.  But within a few minutes, she was checking my numbers that her assistant had gotten. At each -- heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, pulse rate, and body temp -- she said "perfect."

She sat back in her chair and said, "Excellent. I wish I had such numbers."

Then came the big moment: the results of the latest blood test and my cholesterol count. She looked surprised. She leaned forward for a closer look. "It's down," she said. "Within normal range. With those numbers, I would not prescribe a statin for you. Would you like me to unprescribe the statin?"

"Yes, please."

I won. My LDL fell from 146 to 129. My total cholesterol fell from 244 to 188. Without a statin, that's within normal, low cardiovascular risk range. Excuse me while I give myself a little pat on the back.

My doctor was not quite sure what to make of this 75-year-old making his own health care decisions and, worse, being right. "I have to do something for you," she said. "What can I do for you?"

"Nothing. I think I'm good to go."

"How about a  shingles vaccine shot? You know if you get shingles, the pain is just awful and lasts for weeks. Outside it costs a hundred bucks. Here it's free."

To make my doctor feel better, I got a shingles shot.

And now, according to the National Geographic story, must I take living a long, healthy life to the next level -- based on new discoveries about genes?

Of course, I do know that good genes help. I figured I must have decent ones since I am the oldest of five siblings, all of whom will have reached 70 when the youngest, my brother Reggie, turns 70 next year.

When Reggie was five, I taught him to swim at the local swimming pool. He used to hang onto my neck for dear life. On his 70th, I can't wait to say, "Happy Birthday, old man! Welcome to old age!"

The National Geographic story is about "how our genes harbor many secrets to a long and healthy life" and how scientists are beginning to uncover them. While not finding anybody who has made it to 120, the story pictures and briefly describes several who have made it to the big 100.

But no one is anywhere near 120. The National Geographic story is an interesting account of the headlong race to find genetic keys. We will get there, but later rather than sooner. For those of us living now, the genetic studies are devilishly complex and elusive and progressing in baby steps.They are in a far too early stage to help you and me reach super old age.

Sorry, but if you want to make it to 120, you are pretty much on your own. But, you know what, just as I went out on my own to dramatically lower my cholesterol, I think we can do the same in greatly increasing our lifespan on this earth.

Job one is to avoid or at least control the chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and diabetes. If we can do that -- and I have -- the next big hurdle is in lifestyle. We need to adopt a healthy lifestyle, both physically and emotionally. I have done that too. At least I think so. Anybody out there with good lifestyle ideas I might have missed, I'm all ears.

So long and keep moving.

                                     Amazon E-Books by George Pollock

"State Kid: Hero of Literacy" is fiction based on his real-life experiences growing up in foster homes; "Last Laughs," is the true story of how five foster kids (he and four younger siblings) found their way in life and each other. "Killers: Surprises in a Maximum Security Prison," is the story of his being locked up for 23 hours with killers in a maximum security prison; "I, Cadaver" is about his postmortem adventures and mischief in the anatomy lab at UMass Medical School. “A Beautiful Story” demonstrates the art and process of creative writing as a 16-year-old boy goes all out to write a story that literally saves his life; "A Long, Happy, Healthy Life," is about how to live the title every day; and "Unlove Story," Writing anonymously as "Elvis," a husband, dumped after 38 years of marriage, lets it all out on love, marriage, life, everything. A guy doing this? It's unheard of.
For the Nook:

A Beautiful Story
A Long, Happy, Healthy Life
I, Cadaver

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