Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I spent some time with my Dad this last weekend and it really got me thinking about the whole process of getting old.

My Dad is 75, probably not that old in the scheme of things but I really noticed over the last few days, probably for the first time that he has become an old man.

How much of ageing is just inevitable? What can you do to prevent some of the major problems associated with getting older?

Looking at my Dad I noticed a few things:

  • A loss of muscle - I remember him as a big man, with a huge barrel chest and some lean mass around his upper body. Somehow in recent months that has gone. The muscle is disappearing.
  • Posture - he is bending over. The tonic muscles are getting tighter and he is bending at the hips and neck...stooping.
  • Confidence - he is starting to be less confident in his own abilities, physically and mentally.
  • Balance - he looks unsteady.

I think training could remedy much - posture, muscle mass, balance. In Body by Science, McGuff and Little talk about a study done into resistance training for the elderly and how it can actually reverse ageing in human skeletal muscle.

Resistance Exercise Reverses Aging in Human Skeletal Muscle

Human aging is associated with skeletal muscle atrophy and functional impairment (sarcopenia). Multiple lines of evidence suggest that mitochondrial dysfunction is a major contributor to sarcopenia. We evaluated whether healthy aging was associated with a transcriptional profile reflecting mitochondrial impairment and whether resistance exercise could reverse this signature to that approximating a younger physiological age. Skeletal muscle biopsies from healthy older (N = 25) and younger (N = 26) adult men and women were compared using gene expression profiling, and a subset of these were related to measurements of muscle strength. 14 of the older adults had muscle samples taken before and after a six-month resistance exercise-training program. Before exercise training, older adults were 59% weaker than younger, but after six months of training in older adults, strength improved significantly (P<0.001) such that they were only 38% lower than young adults. As a consequence of age, we found 596 genes differentially expressed using a false discovery rate cut-off of 5%. Prior to the exercise training, the transcriptome profile showed a dramatic enrichment of genes associated with mitochondrial function with age. However, following exercise training the transcriptional signature of aging was markedly reversed back to that of younger levels for most genes that were affected by both age and exercise. We conclude that healthy older adults show evidence of mitochondrial impairment and muscle weakness, but that this can be partially reversed at the phenotypic level, and substantially reversed at the transcriptome level, following six months of resistance exercise training.

I wish my Dad would train. However while I think training could do something, maybe we are also fooling ourselves. We are going to get older and we will deteriorate.

The other thing that seeing him made me think about was the shortness of life. No matter what you do for your health - exercise, diet, whatever - you will die. This will end.

There is a passage in the Bible (Ecclesiastes 7:2) that says:

[It is] better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that [is] the end of all men; and the living will lay [it] to his heart.

Going to a funeral is better than going to a party because it makes you appreciate that all men will die. It makes you take to heart your own mortality and the fact that you will not be here forever.

What do you do with that? Appreciate what you have now. Reflect on eternity.


Asclepius said...

It is just part of the cycle of life. We become old. We die. It is necessary.

I lost my dad at 23 - but when I shave, I see him in the mirror. Or when my kids are horsing around, I see him within them. I think it is Lagavulin which claims to 'take our the fire but leave the warmth'. That is how I see his passing and how mine will be for my kids.

Why train? Well, if we take care of ourselves it means we travel first class. If we abuse our bodies....well, we are going to find it pretty uncomfortable in cattle-class - and the journey is long enough!

Chris D said...

The japanese have an interesting practice for their elders to increase leg strength as they age, it's called Kaatsu and is basically just occlusion training. In essence, they tie cloth around the base of each thigh and simply walk around for five minutes, then remove the wraps.

I've read some research on the physiological effects of occlusion training, the few minutes of ischemia seem to elicit a training response of much more intense exercise. There is a finnish study I can't find that looked at post-op acl patients and occlusion training with a blood pressure cuff and leg raises. The result was the occlusion training group lost 50% less muscle mass in the quad then the control group.

Ketones also seem to be neuroprotective under hypoglycemic conditions. I suspect some of the effects of age related cognitive decline are related to an inability to provide a consistent glucose supply to the brain.

I know some Alzheimers caregivers are reporting significant improvements administering coconut milk. This blog by Dr Newport covers some of the research. Hyperlipid also covered this.

Anonymous said...

Of course, it's a waste of time to worry about death or fear it. I liked Epicurus' take on it: you'll be dead, so you won't know the difference.

Enjoy the party, but realize it's not going to make you happy forever..you won't have forever anyway.

Chris said...

Yeah, thanks guys. All good points.

I do think training is important - for fun and to maintain function. Sometimes though the reality of the brevity of life comes through and we should think about it.

Rannoch Donald said...

We need to stop thinking about training and think about simply keeping well. Being useful to the "tribe". Contributing rather than simply taking and assuming the NHS will be there for us. It seems these days the cure can often be worse than the curse.

I think it is natural to look at your parents and consider their mortality and therefore your own. My father died when I was 9. It was only when I surpassed him in years that I truly realised how young he was when he died. He was one of the first people in the UK to be fitted with a heart valve. the medication he had to take ultimately took him.

When I look at fathers in the their 30's, overweight and unfit, I see the legacy they are leaving their children.

Buddhist death meditation sounds terribly morbid. But it's not. Everything is impermanent. Everything. And that is what makes life so precious. Every second we have is miraculous.

As Sam Harris says in End of Faith

“...every person you have ever met, every person you will pass on the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything we love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?”

And why wouldn't you want to be fit and healthy whilst doing it, I might add.

Marc said...

My Dad is 76. He had a triple bypass (which was termed "preventative") He was up and moving 7 days later and just 2 months later he was playing golf and swimming in the ocean. (one of his favorite things). He was "jogging" before anyone had used that word, he was pulling on one of those metal expanding chest contraptions 35 years ago. He never followe anytye of "exercise protocol" but has kept his body moving his whole life. At 76 he walks with confidence and purpose in his step. He feels good that he is more physically capable then his friends.......but this is not the entire picture, what in my opinion complets he physical is the mental. My dad is at 76 is still travelling, planning excursion and getwaways with mom. Mentally (pay attention now, this is big ;-) ) he is always thinking about tomorrow.....the excitement of tomorrow. I know we should live in the present which he does whole heartedly, he apreciated every day.....but he has not lost sight of what tomorrow might bring......i think here in lies a small secret.
Thanks for reading, I just wanted to share that.


Rannoch Donald said...


Excellent stuff. Being in the here and now is the only thing that let's us contemplate the future with any clarity. Sounds like your Dad has it just right!


Marc said...


Sorry about the horrendous spelling and grammar, I was in a hurry and did not check my comment before submitting. But I think my point came across ;-)
Thank you.

SafeNSharp said...

Just visited my Dad this week (and Mom). He is 90 Thank God, and he has vascular dementia. He is a WW2 veteran, combat medic and Ranger-trained, who was always the strongest, most determined and hardest working man I know. Both parents have heart disease, though really not overweight.

My dad used to smoke Lucky Strikes but quit in the 80's, because as a pharmacist, he saw the overwhelming evidence. Just quit cold turkey.

He told me in the past he loved doing calisthenics in the Army, the doctors told him that he survived when he was shot, in part, due to the excellent physical condition he was in at the time.

He has suffered 22 operations since WW2, has wet macular degeneration, hearing loss (war), one leg shorter than other, is wheelchair bound and requires a 24 hour aide to attend to his needs. It kills me to see him like this, and to hear him cry in pain when attended to at night as is necessary to prevent bedsores. His pain is controlled now with Vicadin, not a pretty choice, but if you saw his chronic pain due to no knee cartilage and other maladies you'd understand.

Yet with all this, I"m so grateful to have him, to see him, to touch him, and prance my 2 year old daughter before him, which he enjoyed immensely.

I guess the point of this post, aside from my own carthasis, is that even with top conditioning, 'things' can go wrong, strokes can happen, and progressive debiliation comes in. Yet imagine how much worse it would be if he hadn't a lifetime of good conditioning. Much to ponder....

Holly said...

I watched both my parents deteriorate for years, but much faster than was necessary. Dad had back problems that could have been alleviated by weight training. Honestly, he abused his body also. Mom was just as bad, and I would watch her hobble around and struggle just to get out of a chair while she was still in her 40s. It made me very sad to see them break down, and it also made me realize I had to stay active so I could maintain a better quality of life, even as I age. One of my inspirations is Guro Dan Inosanto, one of my Kali instructors. He is in his 70s and is a truly amazing individual. He readily admits you have to change how you train each decade, but the point is to keep training and moving. His philosophy is that he would rather wear out than rust out, and I must agree.

Thanks so much for visiting my blog, as well, Chris. You have a great blog, here.