Welcome to this installment of my Adventures in Aging “Audio Postcard” series!
Today’s episode: “Health Is Easy. Illness Is Hard.”
Click the link below to listen to the postcard. (A transcript of the recording follows. Enjoy!)
Health Is Easy Illness Is Hard
Have you ever noticed how, when you’re not suffering from any illness or disease, your life just clicks along? You’re focused on your to-do lists. You are getting things done. You’re making plans for the future. The days fly by…then Boom!
You come down with a bad cold or the flu; or your digestive system starts acting up and causing you fits; or you start getting tired all the time; or, God forbid, you get diagnosed with something serious like cancer or heart disease or type 2 diabetes.
Suddenly your life becomes all about that illness, and you would give just about anything to have your prior life back.
This is how many of us treat our health: We ignore it, until we can’t.
Our health hangs in the background—as a given, an assumption, something we just “have”… until we don’t.
I recently suffered through a “stomach flu” I got while traveling, and the long week it took me to get better reminded me—as all my acute illnesses seem to do—how wonderful, how much a gift, really, it is to be “normal” and healthy. But what happens when we develop an illness we may not just simply recover from? Then, ill health looms and our life shifts forever.
The photo that accompanies this blog is one of many sunrise pictures I’ve been taking to email to a long-time friend, not much older than me, who wants to “see” as many sunrises as he can right now.
His own health had been on the back burner for decades. He’d taken on more and more work projects, become more and more stressed, and was working so hard he didn’t have time to ski or rock climb anymore (though he lived in Aspen, Colorado and had used to love both).
Then came the puzzling bouts of abdominal pain and abruptly, the diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. The agony of his current situation—the pain, the chemo, the side effects, the uncertainty—and the way his life has gotten thrown asunder seem unimaginable; but now it’s the reality he has to live with.
I have another friend who kept her focus on work; was constantly stressed from a difficult divorce; who hated to exercise; who ate too much and too unconsciously; and who fell into the obesity trap. She’s exactly my age, and, not surprisingly, has developed type 2 diabetes. Now her life is about medication and struggle, and about facing the slow deterioration in health that goes hand in hand with that disease.
Now that I’m solidly into the final third of my life (let’s just say I’m full speed ahead toward 70), I’m witnessing more people my age and younger confront serious health challenges—from heart problems to type 2 diabetes to chronic lung disease, autoimmune disease, cancers, and too-early death. I’m here to tell you, right now, to make no mistake: Illness is Hard.
Developing a chronic disease changes your life forever. It makes it much harder to live an energetic, fulfilling, or functional life. Disease drags you down; it costs money; often requires drugs that have a slew of side effects that are hard to endure; places burdens on your family and friends; and cuts your beautiful life short.
But why do I assert, conversely, that Health is Easy? Because all it takes to start getting healthier is to get clear on what some of the simplest, most powerful health steps and habits are; and then start trending your own choices toward them. Over time, healthy choices become self-reinforcing; you get to feel better as you go!
Eat real food, mostly plants. Get more sleep. Move more in your life. Stress less; have more fun! Don’t poison yourself with alcohol, tobacco, or junk food. Treat your body and your health like the gifts that they truly are.
Not rocket science, right? And yet, the billion dollar diet, supplement, and food industries profit from everyone’s confusion and overwhelm about what we really should be eating, or not eating; what “diet” we should be on; how exactly we should be exercising; or what the latest research REALLY shows about x, y, or z food or diet or behavior.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against scientific research! I even did some myself (an epidemiological study of 2 parasitic diseases in Kenya, in 1974). But research is only part of the puzzle, and too often people and even doctors and nutritionists chase the bright shiny object of “the latest study,” and extrapolate unwarranted conclusions from them, focusing on one small tree instead of the larger forest. Nutrition research is especially vulnerable to misinterpretation, and it also tends to favor a “reductionist” approach where the nutrient is placed at greater value than the food.
Single studies, or a handful of studies, are one thing; collecting dozens to hundreds of studies on healthy eating and living, and performing “meta-analyses”—studies of the studies, so to speak—are another. And here’s what the broader conclusions are from this kind of broader research:
Eat real food, mostly plants. Get more sleep. Move more in your life. Stress less; have more fun! Don’t poison yourself with alcohol, tobacco, or junk food. Cultivate healthy relationships. Treat your body and your health like the gifts that they truly are.
And it’s never too early, or too late, to start! For example, if you’re a smoker and you quit—at any age—your lungs can start to heal some of the damage you’ve done to them. My mom finally quit smoking at age 64 and, though she had to live with some permanent lung damage (COPD) and occasional bouts of pneumonia, she still lived an active and functional life to age 93.
So take one step today: Eat another salad…go to bed earlier…move your body…forego that second drink…get outdoors…go hug somebody!
Take those kinds of easy actions, and be consistent, so you can protect yourself from illness as much and for as long as you can. Enjoy choosing, and being, and living healthier, every single day.
Because health is easy; but illness is hard.