Thursday, 15 May 2008

What factors make us kick the bucket?

What factors make us kick the bucket? has been re-produced at my new blog Cell Your Sole.

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.

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.

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, as a couple of the previous posts show, 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's certainly not the voice of reason. The same is for science. when you critique the prevailing view you'd better be on guard because you often get shot down.

My point is just this, it's all 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're nowhere near the understanding physics has of the basic laws or what chemistry has of the bonds between molecules.

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. 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 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.

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. You've 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.

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, more likely one or two major components like the clutch, engine, or gearbox.

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

The same goes for humans 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.

Well just like many cars these days, our bodies are designed to survive no matter what they're put through. we 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.

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.

I feel it's the same with risk factors for heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis etc. 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. I think most of us get that. But is it that all this builds up and finally gets too much for us when we're old? Possibly but I'm not convinced. I don't think that our DNA defines an exact age to die, I do think that as we get older our cells receive less 'motivation' to take care of themselves. By this I mean I think it takes more effort to keep yourself fit and healthy.

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. I've seen many others like them. They weren't all fit when they were 20 and 40. 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 apparently you have the same risk of cancer as others your age not greater.

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

Eating well is great but sleeping well is completely ignored. Reglar 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 is where you body repairs itself. Is it not important to note that hours and quality of sleep reduce as we age. We also get less active as we age. Length of sleep and amount of activity have some correlation. I've also seen research that highlights that the symptoms of old age are very similar to the symptoms of years without much activity.

A side note that makes a 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, remeber these are elderly people so we're not talking step aerobics or volleyball here for those guys that aren't so nimble, climbing stairs, running was better than jogging which is better than walking. Bascially it appeared to be the impact the activity placed on the bones. that had the greatest protective effect.

What does this tell you. Well it told me that 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.

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. A bit of a hypchondriac I know but it went on for weeks and I couldn't shift it. I made sure I ate brilliantly, loads of fruit and veg etc and I rested. I didn't do any sport for weeks. I was bored as hell. But it didn't get better at all.

I'd been sleeping just 6 hours a night for many years now 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 amazed me was that within 2-3 days the problem was virtually gone. It was nothing to do with eating well or resting by not playing sport. It was entirely due to just sleeping better. Can I explain this with current theory. Yes. I've know for years since my A levels and bio psychology that the body recovers during sleep and 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. That's probably the same for the brain but it's just a small organ compared to the entire body and it's not that differentiated.

Now for the last few years I hadn't really been that active but at this poiint I was playing tennis almost every day. And I play pretty intensely. So the damage would probably be a lot.

From this point on 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 either 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 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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