Have you ever heard someone say their body is just "falling apart" or that Grandma died because her body just "wore out"? What does that even mean, really? Clearly there's a lot that happens between someone going from hale and healthy to dying of a heart attack, cancer or some other problem. But what is it?
"How do people fall apart?" isn't quite as common (or as entertaining) a question as "How are babies made?" but perhaps we all should be asking it more. Despite its obvious importance to all of us walking around in these meat sacks, it's still a mystery to most of us how exactly our bodies wear out as we age. So one doctor decided to walk us through the process of how human beings fall apart.
It starts with the humble joint, according to Anca Ioviţă, a doctor of both engineering and medicine who currently specializes in gerontology and geriatrics. She explains in her blog post that our joints work by "diffusion," meaning that since cartilage has no blood vessels, nutrients and waste must be passively moved in and out from the surrounding tissues. Because of this, they can get "dehydrated" as we age, causing them to fail.
Your liver will likely be second in line to go, writes Ioviţă. "The liver processes most fats and since they are easily oxidated, they are more difficult to eliminate," she writes in her Longevity Letter, adding this leads to fatty liver disease, a condition that accounts for over 75 percent of all chronic liver disease and affects about 25 percent of people in the U.S. Worse, it can up your risk for cardiovascular disease.
After that, your eyes and ears go as your vision becomes cloudier and your hearing diminishes.
Your heart and cardiovascular system are most likely to decline next, she says. "Atherosclerosis may be silent up to your 70s, but afterwards you will start to notice its symptoms," she writes. "The heart gets bigger, especially the left ventricle. And its valves get calcified, especially the aortic one, and its collagen gets cross-linked."
Your lungs and kidneys may also start to fail around this time.
But it's our primary organ, our brain, that hangs on the longest in most cases, Ioviţă says. The brain is usually the last to go, with degenerative brain disease starting to manifest in otherwise healthy individuals in their 80s. "Sure, people may forget slight things when in their 50s, 60s or 70s, but it is usually in the 80s when dementia becomes dangerous for them and for those around them," she explains.
This isn't a surety, she adds, but rather the pattern doctors see most often in their patients. And knowing this progression of weakness now can give you an opportunity to take steps now to protect yourself. Thankfully the things that help #1 on the list, your joints — things like daily exercise, a healthy diet, plentiful sleep — are the same things that can help the bigger problems further down the road. And, at the very least, now you can say you know both how babies are made and how adults fall apart.
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