Five easy ways to beat the Reaper

July 11, 2014

Jonathan Sackier
Jonathan Sackier

  • Surgeon, Clinical Professor 
  • 30 years of healthcare experience 
  • Author of the “Fly Well” column in AOPA PILOT 
  • Flying since 15 years old, owns a Columbia 400 

There's a joke that goes something like this: Three guys are at a bar chatting and one asks, "What would you want to hear people say about you as they stood around your open casket?" One says, "he was a good and kind family man." The next chap says, "He was a hard and diligent worker." And the third says "Ooh look! He's moving!" 

There is also a cracking good short piece by Woody Allen, "Death Knocks," about how a 57-year-old dress maker cheats Death by engaging the Grim Reaper in a game of gin rummy. But maybe there are some other ways you can defer, if not defeat the man with the sickle: 

1. Get a dog: While Fido might save your life by scaring away intruders with intent to harm, man's best friend can extend your life in other ways. If getting active has been a struggle, bringing a Labrador into your life may provide some stimulus. Simply put, until someone can figure out how to teach a Bichon to use the bathroom, someone has to take the dog for a walk. And the exercise you will get improves cardiac and respiratory health, hypes brain function, keeps weight under control, and enhances mood.      

Additionally, research has shown that if you sit and stroke a dog, your blood pressure will drop, and this is undoubtedly good for your health. Cats have the same effect, but they tend not to take kindly to collars and leashes! The comparitively new knowledge about mind-body interfaces, or psychoneuroimmunobiology, has shown that being genuinely happy is beneficial to human health by many measures. I challenge anyone not to feel good about the world when throwing a ball for a puppy, watching its antics, or having a rough and tumble. So get a dog. 

2. Eat salmon: The research is in, and beyond a shadow of a doubt, getting more fish rich in oils into your diet is a very good thing: salmon, tuna, halibut, and so on. The Omega 3 fatty acids seem to have a protective effect on your heart and eating fish will take the place (or plaice!) of red meat, which should be consumed in moderation. A word about food supplements here: I do not want to over-generalize, but on the whole, if a good substance can be obtained in natural food I am much more in favor of that. Not only is it less expensive, but it tastes better! 

3. Learn how to eat: At the risk of sounding horribly preachy, the majority of people not only eat poor foods, they do so poorly. This contributes to the obesity epidemic we are experiencing. Everyone has an opinion on the "right" diet, but I tend to be rather more pragmatic. Eat good foods the right way.

For instance, modern main meal plates are way too big; buying smaller plates leads to eating less food. That old chestnut you heard from your mother about finishing everything on your plate because "there are children starving in Africa" is horrible. Yes, every day kids, and adults, die from malnutrition around the world, and I certainly do not want to minimize or parody that. However, gluttonous overconsumption does not help these unfortunates and harms you. So my advice? Leave something on your plate. Make a conscious effort to do so. Some people cut up all their food at once into tasty, bite-size pieces. This is a bad idea as it encourages one to finish everything. Instead, try taking a bite and putting your utensils down, chewing well, having a drink of water, and taking your time. This will allow the stomach satiety sensors to kick in, guaranteeing an earlier sense of fullness, and you will eat less and drink more fluid, for which your kidneys will thank you.  

Try to eat the healthier elements first: vegetables, then proteins, and leave the starches (potatoes and such like) to last. Also, do not eat in front of the TV but rather with friends or family. This is another way to (a) eat less and (b) actually focus on "mindfullness," being aware of the food you are eating, and of course, (c) you will spend time enhancing relationships. 

Life is about timing, and so is eating. It is important to have food to "break your fast" to get things moving both in your brain and in your colon. Breakfast encourages our gut to empty, which limits the chance for colorectal cancers to be inspired to take up residence in your rectum. While a boiled egg may be hard to beat, consider starting breakfast with some high-fiber cereal, perhaps with a lower-fat liquid; try soy or almond milk or even 1-percent regular milk.  

4. Flex those muscles: Exercise will help one sleep better, improves the function of every part of the body, and helps maintain a healthy weight. Cycling is a great sport. Swimming is also excellent, as is going for a walk—see No. 1 above! It really does not matter what you do, just do something! Before embarking on an exercise program talk to your doctor first to get a sense of how to roll it out, especially if eating too many rolls has led to some rolls around your tum.

5. Perchance to dream: Sleep is a critically important part of your day, and survey data shows Americans are not getting enough of it. Poor sleep habits lead to all sorts of health problems and a shortened life span. Remember, the goal here is to keep Mr. Reaper at arm's length; that way he cannot get you with his scythe. A lot of people complain to me about difficulty sleeping and before resorting to medication I like to go through some checklist items: 

*  Take care of what and when you eat. For instance, caffeine hangs around for several hours and can impact sleep. Apps are available to allow you to see when you should stop drinking tea or coffee on any given day. Foods that are rich in sugars are also a bad idea before bedtime, but complex carbohydrates may help. Alcohol will not help you sleep and will interfere with how you feel the next day.

*  Do not exercise late in the day. Released endorphins and enkephalins will wind you up.

*  A nice hot bath or shower before bedtime can be relaxing

*  Get the lighting right in your bedroom—subdued, soft tones are best—and ensure you have dense shades or curtains to filter or block the morning sun.

*  No TV or computer in the bedroom. Not only will these keep your brain active but the flickering lights may also interfere with initiating sleep.

If tiredness continues to plague you, consider consulting your doctor to see if you have sleep apnea, episodes of not breathing during sleep that cause fatigue during the day and can be very dangerous. This is more common in folks who are carrying extra weight, drink alcohol, or, heaven forbid, smoke. 

I hope some of these ideas help you stick around longer.

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Jonathan Sackier