Geoff J Needham: Freelance Writer
Geoff J Needham: Freelance Writer                                    

How We Live Can Determine How and When We Die


'We are all going to die and there is nothing we can do it about'.


A somewhat fatalistic statement that suggests our demise is predetermined and unalterable. But how true is this?


Assuming we're fortunate enough to avoid life's numerous hazards and pitfalls, how long we live is largely determined by a combination of factors, which, for arguments sake, we can breakdown into genetic and environmental, or lifestyle. Which of the two exerts most influence depends on individual circumstances.


Genetics, essentially the process of heredity, is the one over which we have the least control, although science is rapidly starting to address this. Genetics determines how long we are likely to live, subject to other conditions, and why we age at differing rates, for example, why somebody aged 55 can look 45 whilst someone else of the same age can appear to be 65. This suggests that chronological age, particularly later in life, has little or no significance compared to what we might call biological age. If our parents survived into their nineties the chances are we'll enjoy a long, healthy life. But if we inherit abnormalities, or genetic disorders, our survival rates are likely to be substantially diminished.


Unlike genetics, we do have considerable influence over environmental factors, which essentially means we can control the aging process. To some extent. Excessive exposure to the sun, smoke, alcohol, drugs, pollution... can all damage skin cells and cause premature aging.  Smoking itself affects the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems, persistent alcohol abuse can cause innumerable health issues, including cancer, liver disease, brain damage and calcium deficiency. Resultant weight increase can lead to other potentially fatal problems such as heart disease. And this is without taking into account wider and resultant social and relationship implications, such as crime, violence and drink driving.


Of course, there are numerous other factors in the aging process, for example where we live, where we work, exposure to infectious diseases... but all can be regulated to some extent.


So, having established that an irresponsible lifestyle causes change and damage to body cells and their functions, what can we do to offset the impact? Obviously, abstinence or cutting back on intake, is the ultimate solution but if you don't want to go down that route all is not lost, there are other things you can do... One theory of aging suggests cells age due to damage caused by free radicals. There are systems within the body that hunt out free radicals, principally antioxidants, vitamin E, found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils, and vitamin C, derived from fresh fruit and vegetables. Blueberries, for example, are packed with antioxidants, they can combat aging, fight infection, strengthen the immune system and decrease the risks of cancer, heart disease and neurological diseases.


What scientists are seeking to ascertain is why, later in life, we appear more susceptible to these and other diseases such as diabetes, osteoporosis,dementia... The obvious reason would again seem to be accumulated cell damage. But whilst we can't, as yet, reverse this process we can at least ensure that we don't help the acceleration. Eliminating smoking, excessive alcohol and excessive exposure to the sun whilst reducing our calorific intake and taking exercise will do much more to ensure a healthy aging process than any amount of pills or potions.


So when do we start to worry about aging? When we see the first wrinkle, the first grey hair?


The media is forever full of stories of people who have lost their lives prematurely as a result of war, disease, murder, accidents, natural disasters... So rather than worrying about growing old perhaps we should be more grateful we've survived long enough to see the wrinkles and grey hairs appear. Of course, probability is not something that enters our mind when the mirror reflects the physical evidence of our mortality. So why does such a natural process concern so many people?


Obviously, there are numerous, personal reasons, we want to maximise our time with family and friends, we don't want to be dependent on others, we don't want to suffer, there are things we want to do, places we want to see... But although we might be very good at staff management or financial management generally we're very poor when it comes to life management.


Knowing that our stay on earth is finite, life is, or should be, an extended exercise in time management. The problem is we're too busy doing other things to plan our time effectively. There is much to be said for listing the '10 things to do before I die' - but we should be compiling this list when we're twenty not seventy. And as we tick off each accomplishment we should add another and another so that we always maintain ten challenges, always have something to look forward to, something to aspire to.


If we also break that list down into personal, family and humanitarian acts, for example, when our final list is compiled, whatever our age, we can be certain of having achieved so much more than leaving things to chance. The aim should always be to avoid the dreaded death bed scenario of regretting what we hadn't accomplished or, even worse, what we hadn't even attempted.


The other aspect where we generally fail is risk management. The dash for a 'quick fix' in our later years overlooks the fact that aging is a lengthy internal process that cannot be influenced, beyond superficiality, by external factors. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on anti-aging products and cosmetic surgery in attempts to turn back the clock or to halt the march of time. Obviously, this self-indulgent exercise makes many people very rich but it doesn't prolong a healthy life. Better self-management, especially in our younger years, is the only sure way to improve our chances of a healthy, enjoyable and contented old age.


So, the first part of the opening statement holds true, we are all going to die but there is a great deal we can do during our life to ensure we minimise the chances of suffering premature aging or debilitating or terminal illness.


And this means leading a sensible not a monastic existence.


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© Geoff Needham