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Aging and Rabbit Stew

Columnist: James DeVore, M.D.
September, 2015 Issue

James DeVore, M.D.
All articles by columnist

Just about everyone complains about getting older, but most people just aren’t sure what to do about it.

The unwavering Mr. C was on a roll as he was explaining why he needed a DMV Disabled Person Parking Placard. “…and it’s getting harder and harder to walk that far anymore,” he emphasized. He’d been my patient for more than 15 years and, aside from being overweight and out of shape, he was in perfectly good health. He should be walking more, not less, I was thinking.
Mr. C finally ended his closing argument with: “You know doc, I’m 73 years old!” And there it was: He’d played the age card.
Can we discuss aging for a minute? Most people I know struggle to find the gold in the golden years. Some downright hate the idea of getting old. Do you? Are you starting to collect a few more creaks and groans? Is an afternoon nap slowly creeping into your routine? I’ve even heard that some people…ahem…wrap up “a night on the town” by 9 p.m. Let’s just say it: Aging isn’t easy. Just about everyone complains about getting older, but most people just aren’t sure what to do about it. Many seem to simply give in to the inexorable decline of the years. But not so fast! Let’s reexamine this issue and talk about what’s really going on. Maybe there’s a strategy that’s worth consideration.
But first, we go need to go back to 1966 for a quick story (bear with me here). I was in the gym with my high school basketball team before the first practice, when our wizened old coach gathered us around. His goal was to inspire us before the upcoming season. “Boys” he said, “Always remember this: You can’t have rabbit stew without the rabbits.” Huh? I remember glancing at a teammate and exchanging a what-the-heck-does-that-mean look. But on further reflection almost 50 years later, maybe the old coach was on to something. Maybe that quirky quote about making rabbit stew still offers a nugget of wisdom for us today. Getting back to the issue of aging, maybe preparing for a basketball season isn’t that different from preparing for a long life of health and vitality. Just as an athlete must commit to a program of preparation and training, I’d suggest we can all benefit from approaching aging with a similar mindset.
Let’s get to the point: In my experience, there are three common mistakes people make in their thinking about getting old.
Mistake 1: “If I go to the doctor regularly and take all my pills and supplements and get regular check-ups, I’ll be good.” Not really. The problem is that most doctor visits focus on managing diseases more than maintaining health or slowing down aging. Yes, of course, you need to control your blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol—but that’s not enough. Taking pills won’t slow down the inevitable decline that comes from aging.
Mistake 2: “Now that I’m getting older, I’ve earned my rocking chair—it’s time to take it easy.” Not smart! Yes, you may be getting tired, weak and stiff; and sure, it’s natural to feel like easing up. But will that strategy get you what you really want? For most people, the goal is to achieve the fullest possible potential throughout their lifespan. This means being able to stay independent. No one wants to give up driving, become dependent on caregivers or end up in a care facility if they can possibly avoid it. Without a doubt, those who push to remain active and fit remain mobile and independent much longer than those who are sedentary. Beware of the rocking chair!
Mistake 3: “I’m too old to get in shape now—it’s too late.” Wrong again! The human body has an incredible capacity to heal, adapt and get stronger. No matter how old and out of shape you’ve become, your body will respond to a progressive fitness program. Exercise and fitness are the most important strategies to combat aging. There’s a never-ending stream of research that shows this. It turns out that exercise is more important than taking statins, lowering your blood pressure or even eating a balanced diet. Research studies even show that being fit is much more beneficial than being thin. One recent study looked at the overall death rate in seniors related to exercise. Over the 8.5-year study period, the “inactive” group had a 50 percent higher chance of dying than the “active” group!
What can be learned here? No one says getting older is easy. But as you consider your personal choices and your approach to aging, will you be like Mr. C and give in to the decline that comes from being sedentary? Or will fitness and exercise be part of your lifestyle? I’m pretty sure that, if we could ask my old coach the key to healthy aging, he’d say: preparation, determination and good old fashioned hard work—the very same ingredients that make a winning basketball team…or go into a pot of rabbit stew.
Dr. James DeVore has been a full-time family physician in Santa Rosa since 1980. He’s medical director of St. Joseph Health’s Annadel Medical Group.



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