Friday, May 01, 2009

The 3 D's

My almost-86-year-old mother was recently diagnosed with macular degeneration. Being a medical transcriptionist, I had to immediately research the disease to learn more about it, as curiosity is one of an MT’s great assets. Here is a quote from emedicinehealth’s web site:

Age-related macular degeneration is the leading cause of legal blindness in people older than 55 years in the United States. Age-related macular degeneration affects more than 1.75 million individuals in the United States. Owing to the rapid aging of the U.S. population, this number is expected to increase to almost 3 million by 2020. Because overall life expectancy continues to increase, age-related macular degeneration has become a major public-health concern.

That certainly made me think. As a Baby Boomer, I’ve read lots of insightful articles on whether our out-of-control healthcare system in this country can accommodate the great numbers of our age group who are going to be laden with diseases of old age. What? Did we really believe we could scientifically add years to our lives with no downside? In spite of health advances enabling most people to live to a ripe old age, unfortunately the medical knowledge has not found cures for all the diseases of a ripe old age. It’s the old gift/curse syndrome.

I, like a lot of people, I suppose, have spent a great deal of time wondering at what age I will die, but even more than that, I yearn for healthy, active, independent, and productive years leading up to that time. (OK, Rachel, I know this freaks you out, so you can quit reading now...) Everyone wants to live a long life, but more and more we are thinking about what constitutes a healthy one. We grow old, blessed with the increased years longevity gives us, cursed with the 3 D’s - disease, decline, and degeneration - that accompany those extra years. At some point, your body just can’t handle it anymore. When I was pregnant with Matthew 26 years ago, my maternal grandfather died. I don’t remember the exact age Paw-Paw was at the time, but he was old and had lived a long and productive life, and at one point, all his friends were gone, and his body just got worn out and he was just tired and ready to go. They say each of us is actually dying from the moment we are born - that natural process is put into action even while cells are growing and multiplying. Eventually the “shelf life” of our body parts is limited. We are not meant to live forever as physical beings.

Fortunately in my mom's case, her car accident, although it set her back physically, did nothing to impair her mentally, and she is as sharp as ever. Damage to the neuro and brain system (such as dementia or stroke) is probably one of the most prevalent fears of Baby Boomers. We can handle aches and pains and other signs of wear and tear, but we want to be able to recognize our family members.

Because we are discovering so much about how good food and exercise and decreased stress are all so integral to our health, it does make me regret a lot of choices I made in the past, and makes me wonder how much time I have left to implement habits that will preserve my health as I age. I remember my mom always saying, “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.” As with most of her maxims, I can appreciate its wisdom the older I get.

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