I’ve spent the last couple of weeks making house calls to “at risk” seniors in rural South Carolina. At the rate of about 7 house calls per day, I was able to make some observations based on a respectable sample size. I was both surprised and intrigued by the living conditions I encountered, and I’m pleased to report that I have now performed my first physical exam under the careful scrutiny of a cat, rooster, and hen team (photo at left). On another house call I was offered a pygmy goat as a thank-you for my efforts, and countless good-natured folk offered me home made iced-tea and such edible delectables as fish patties and peach honey.
But what struck me the most was that certain seniors were in far better health than others their age, and that the healthier ones all had one thing in common: strict daily exercise regimens. I realize that this is not ground-breaking news (that exercise is good for us), but the stark contrast between those who exercised and those who didn’t could not have been clearer to me.
One particularly charming 85 year old man gave me a tour of his vegetable garden, and explained that he bicycled into town six days a week to give away okra (and other veggies) to church friends and town folk. Growing vegetables and giving them away was his current life’s work, and although he lived in extremely modest circumstances, what he owned was tidy and clean. He was joyful, bright, and had the physique of an athlete.
Contrast this man to another patient in his 80’s who didn’t exercise at all, and stayed inside smoking cigarettes most of the day. He was blind in one eye, nearly deaf, struggled to breathe, had sores on his skin. He was depressed, over-weight, and swollen from heart failure. I was so sad to see his condition, and the relative squalor in which he lived. Urine and smoke odor permeated the house, and I wondered how much longer he would survive.
When I arrived at another octogenarian’s home, I noted that the garage was filled with watermelons of various sizes. Upon further inquiry, the gentleman said that he had hand-picked the watermelons from a plot of land that he owns 2 miles from his house. He brought them back to the house with a wheel barrow… and had made many trips back and forth over the past week. He was taking no medications and had a completely normal physical exam.
And so my days went – back-to-back visits with seniors who either were engaged in an active lifestyle, or who were wasting away, cooped up indoors with advancing dementia and chronic disease. I realized that no medical treatment has the power to overcome the relentless damage that inactivity, smoking, and deconditioning cause. The secret to a healthy old age lies in lifestyle choices, not pill bottles.
As we enjoy the last holiday weekend of the summer, let’s consider how important labor actually is to our mental and physical well being. You’re never too old to haul watermelons down the road, grow okra for your neighbors, or simply commit to smoking cessation and daily walks. If you do this regularly, your health will surely improve – and your quality of life will be enhanced immeasurably. In the end, adding life to years is what medicine is all about.