1: Dr Peter Attia had flown to San Francisco to attend the funeral of the mother of one of his good friends from college, Becky.
“Because Becky’s parents lived near Palo Alto, where I went to medical school, they invited me to dinner many times,” he recalls in his terrific book Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity.
“We often ate in their garden, which had been beautifully planned and meticulously maintained by Becky’s mother, whose name was Sophie.”
Peter remembered Sophie “as a vibrant, athletic woman who had seemed ageless.”
But he hadn’t seen her since his wedding almost fifteen years earlier. Becky brought Peter up to speed on what he had missed.
2: “Beginning in her early seventies, Sophie had undergone a steep physical decline that began when she slipped and fell while gardening, tearing a muscle in her shoulder,” he writes.
“That soon escalated into back and neck pain so severe that she could no longer work in the garden or play golf at all, her two primary passions in retirement.”
What happened next?
Mostly, she sat around her house, feeling depressed.
“This was followed by a descent into dementia in the last couple of years of her life,” he shares. “She died of a respiratory infection at age eighty-three.”
At the service, Sophie’s family and friends shared that it was a “blessing” that she did not have to continue to live with the curse of dementia.
“But as I sat in the pew,” Peter recalls, “I reflected on the fact that she had spent the last decade of her life being unable to participate in any of the activities that had given her pleasure.
“Instead, she had been in considerable pain. Nobody mentioned that.
“We were gathered to mourn Sophie’s biological death, but it saddened me even more deeply that she had been robbed of the joy of her final years.”
Peter often shares with his patients Sophie’s story.
“Not because her tale is unusual but because it is so sadly typical,” he notes. “We have all watched our parents, grandparents, spouses, or friends undergo similar ordeals.”
But what’s really sad about this reality?
“We almost expect this to happen to our elders, and even with this knowledge, relatively few of us take measures that might help ourselves avoid that fate.
“Even for Becky, who had cared for her mother during her difficult final years, the idea that she might end up in the same condition was probably the furthest thing from her mind,” Peter writes.
The real problem for many of us is that the future “remains a hazy abstraction,” he writes.
There is a better way, Peter believes.
Instead, we can choose to “think about and plan for the later decades of our lives—our seventies, eighties, nineties, or beyond,” he writes.
We can take action to improve our healthspan, defined as the period of life when we are free from disability or disease.
Healthspan is different from lifespan, which is the number of years we live.
“If Becky wants to enjoy a healthy, rewarding life in her later years, and not repeat her mother’s fate, she will have to maintain and hopefully improve her physical and cognitive function every decade between now and then.
“Otherwise, the gravitational pull of aging will do its thing, and she will decline, just as her mother did.”
What is true for Becky is true for us as well.
Reflection: As I get older, do I have a plan to improve my healthspan, the period of life when I am free from disability or disease?
Action: Discuss with a friend, colleague, or family member.