June 24, 2017

A Reality Check


I have been lucky. Throughout my life I have had few health problems. I went to a doctor for checkups and an occasional medical bump in the road. Even spending 150 days  each year in airplanes and hotels rarely resulted in more than a cold or occasional case of food poisoning.

Things started to change about three or four years ago. Slowly, I began to notice strange pains, OK , strange to me. Some of my fingers seemed a bit stiff when I first woke up. A twinge in my lower back wouldn't go away after a hot shower. I had some shortness of breath after a bit of yard work.

Two summers ago things got a little more serious during a trip to Portland: I ended up in the hospital for a few days with a cardiac episode. It wasn't a heart attack, but a small vein was blocked, resulting in pain and a small area of dead heart muscle. Scary for me, my wife, family, and friends, but eventually under control.

A year later, sharp pains in my lower left side wouldn't respond to my normal treatment method: take some aspirin and ignore it. I ended up in the emergency room with diverticulitis, painful but easily cured with antibiotics.

Then, this spring I caught a whopper of a cold. After two months, still coughing and feeling weak, I sought a professional opinion. Based on my description he thought bronchitis was a logical choice. Twenty days of steroid pills later, the cough and weakness still present, he decided to try antibiotics. Maybe my sinuses were infected and that was causing my problems. Nope.

Thinking it was time to up my game, I secured an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. If nothing else, I wanted a doctor to actually look at something up close and personal. A scope of some kind was threaded up my nose and down my throat; everything looked fine with only a slight swelling on one side of my vocal chords. Of course, that could be from all the coughing, but he thought it might also be caused by some acid reflux problem. So, a new set of pills to take. Some unpleasant side effects and a slight, temporary improvement didn't indicate he was right. 

Frankly, by now I was becoming a bit depressed. I began to see my future: endless trips to doctors, all taking guesses but never really solving the nagging aches and pains of  aging. Slowly, but surely, body parts and functions would begin to slip, just enough to be constantly there, never bad enough to prompt a real investigation, but just enough to sap my spirit and strength. I had been through that with my parents and didn't want it for me.

Then, after four months of this problem, the cough began to diminish, from being my frequent companion  to only an occasional visitor. My mood lifted, my energy returned enough to allow me to start going back to the gym, and life seemed brighter.

Had the cold and its effects finally gotten tired of playing with me and left to move onto someone else? Had I completed my 40 days in the wilderness (more like 120 days) and was freed from this test of patience and faith?  I doubt a medical professional knows, I certainly don't.

But, this experience reinforced a few important realities that this 68 year old man must face:

1) My future will contain problems  like this, and worse. The approach of benign neglect that worked so well for the first 64 years of my life is over, finished, no longer on the table.

2) We say doctors "practice" medicine because the human body is too complex for anyone to be able to arrive at more than an educated guess about what may be wrong. I am seriously grateful that the medical profession exists and that I have insurance that allows me to benefit from that  knowledge, but doctors are not always right. Sometimes, they are wrong. 

3) My wife has lived with constant aches and pains for the last 30 plus years. Because of a hypersensitive system she must avoid most pills or medical options. Importantly, she rarely complains. She certainly doesn't give into the disabilities, but works right through them.  Instead of shutting down and bemoaning my fate, I must try to emulate her approach.

4) Ultimately, I am in charge of how my body's treated. If what a doctor gives me doesn't seem to be working, I will not stay on that course. I will ask him to look at other options, i will find a specialist, I will look for second opinions. I will do my own research.

5) As time progresses  I must learn to adjust to more limited choices. Hopefully  I will continue to see the glass half full, but accept that aging has consequences.


We all learn so much on our retirement journey. Some of it is hard to accept, but accept we must. I think what makes the difference is how we deal with the inevitable.


50 comments:

  1. Good morning Bob. So glad to hear that your cough is diminishing and your energy level is coming back. It's easy to take our good health for granted, until something goes wrong.

    You are so right, we must be our own detective when it comes to our health. Preventive medicine, listening to our bodies, and not ignoring symptoms that could be a harbinger of something serious (think chest pain and heart attack!).

    Great post Bob. Thanks for sharing your own personal experiences with us.

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    1. You are welcome, Carole. I bought two air cleaners, one for the bedroom and one for the living room area. Looking at the filters inside each, I can see the dust that is being filtered out. I hope over the long term they will keep the air in the house cleaner and reduce some of my allergies. We will see.

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  2. I recently ignored my own advice that aging means things don't just go away anymore. Six weeks in a real one which I am now ready to burn. We really can't afford to kid ourselves anymore. We're both still here, though, and life is getting back to normal.

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    1. Recliner not real one
      Sheesh

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    2. Ah, recliner works much better in that sentence! Six weeks is a long time to be anchored to a piece of furniture. No wonder you want to destroy it.

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  3. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that as we get older we'll be exactly the same as before, perhaps a little slower, but over all the same. People are told "We are living much longer so keep working into your 70s". I see it in all the "You're only as old as you think you are" and similar slogans that sound nice and are the way we'd like things to be but that's not how it works.

    I don't like to be the bearer of bad news but statistics show that a healthy 50-year-old male has roughly a chance in 2 of not making it to 70 without dying or incurring a critical illness. Bob, with your heart problem you know what I am talking about.

    For instance, out of 100 healthy 60-year-old men, 36 will either suffer a critical illness or die before they turn 70. After age 70, the incidence of disease or death climbs exponentially. The numbers are better for women, but ultimately no one is unscathed.

    Once you hit 60, it's time to take 'carpe diem' seriously. As I've said before: "When you are retired the future is now".

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    1. I managed to make it to 65 before things started to go south. But, over the last few years I think my body is making up for lost time. The reality that the clock is ticking does bring the carpe Diem suggestion into sharper focus.

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  4. Most of us still feel young in our minds, but there is no denying we have more health issues and heal more slowly than we did in our youth. As my 85 yo mother says, after 50 it's patch, patch, patch.

    My DH was diagnosed with heart disease last year via a CT scan, the same year he turned 70. It was a definite wake up call for this red meat, ice cream, nacho loving bad eater. He got *religion*, lost 25 pounds, and has changed his diet completely. Well most days. ;-) Anyway, I marvel at the will power that drives him out on a 3 mile+ walk most days, the step counter he wears and monitors daily, and his renewed stamina. That said, we both agree we're not young anymore, and it just takes longer to recover from any illness or injury than it used to. These are good years, but even after attending his mother's 95th BD party yesterday, we both know they're limited.

    Glad you're recovering. It definitely IS depressing when we don't feel well and can't seem to shake something.
    --Hope

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    1. Taking over 4 months recover from a cold and whatever else might have been mixed in with it is a new experience or me. I haven't had a bad cold in several years, or the flu in...forever. I had forgotten how crappy it is to feel crappy. Welcome to the new normal.

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  5. Hope this doesn't sound too woo-woo, but there's increasing evidence that a lot of these ill-defined maladies are the result of auto-immune malfunctioning that leads to general inflammation and its side-effects. The theory is that most of us live in a comfortable, protected, hygienic, 72-degree bubble these days, one that doesn't sufficiently challenge a complex immune system that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. So with nothing else to do, the immune system turns on itself and gets into mischief. If they're honest, most doctors will tell you that we know next to nothing about the immune system, and that we treat symptoms rather than causes.

    I guess I'm writing this because I disagree with the overall tone of resignation and surrender in the post and replies. Yes, there are medical events over which we have no control, and yes, we're all headed to eventual frailty, but there's also lots we can do along the way, even now, to strengthen our constitutions (to use the old term):

    * Rethink what you eat. Over the past half-century, the medical establishment (and thus the government, as well) has been embarrassingly wrong about its nutritional recommendations. I remember my Dad being limited to a single egg per week! The original dietary pyramid called for 5-6 servings of grains per day and extremely limited fat intake, which led to a generation of low-fat foods high in sugar. Look at the "diabesity" epidemic that correlates with this.

    * We've learned that most of the cells (by number, not weight) in our bodies (skin, orifices, gut, etc.) are non-human bacteria, viruses, and yeasts. This has been dubbed the "microbiome," and ours is woefully under-diverse compared with our ancestors'. So be skeptical about the benefits of antibiotic soaps, and learn to eat in a way that feeds the lower intestine's ecosystem. A single course of oral antibiotics has been shown to dramatically kill off much of the system's good bacteria, so you have to consciously rebuild it.

    * Stress is a good thing. Not the useless stress of worrying and anxiety, but the positive stress of challenges to our bodies. Even in subjects in their 80's, strength/resistance training has been shown to restore mobility and improve many other health markers, including osteoporosis, gait speed, blood pressure, and cognitive function. Aerobic training such as running is less helpful because it increases general inflammation, but so-called high intensity interval training (HIIT) is definitely beneficial. And, believe it or not, extreme changes in temperature -- ice baths and saunas -- are linked both to lifespan and to "healthspan." You have to be willing to be temporarily uncomfortable (exhausted, hot, cold. etc.) but all of these interventions "wake up" the immune system and give it a job it was designed for so it doesn't need to turn on itself.

    Sorry to go on so long, but this is a big, life-altering topic, and one that seniors think doesn't apply to them because "it's too late." It's not!

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    1. I'm not sure I agree with the idea this post shows surrender. It is meant to remind us that our bodies aren't what they were even a few years ago. To deny that courts disaster. Ultimately, we are responsible for how we take care of ourselves and what we do to stay as active as we can at any stage of life.

      That involves food choices, exercise, and realizing that doctors sometimes miss the proper diagnosis. Rather than continue down an unproductive path it is up to us to get a second opinion, do our own research, and do what we can to work with what we've got.

      Some of the things you cite seem to support this view. The one egg a week kick, or that coffee is bad for you but now it is good for you....all means we can't just take everything at face value. Health guidelines are in constant flux. It is up to us, not just medical professionals, to find out what works best for us. That isn't giving up, that is being very proactive.

      No, your comment wasn't too long. I deeply appreciate the time you spent in presenting your points. I think we are pretty close to being on the same page.

      By the way, over a year ago I started taking probiotics every day. My gut has approved.

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    2. I agree with the points Lydgate makes above, BUT there is just no denying the human body at 60 or 70 is NOT the human body at 30 or 40 and that's just reality. A day in my garden or a day with 15K+ steps gives me that message really quickly.

      As well, there are those of us who have a gene pool with multiple auto immune diseases floating through it. I've been lucky to only have the mild ones so far, but there are those in my family for whom diet and exercise don't help much unfortunately.

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    3. Bob, I would like to hear more about probiotics and your gut improving as a result. My husband has issues in that regard and I'm wondering if probiotics might help him.

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    4. Jeannine: I am not a doctor, so take this as purely informational on my use of probiotics: antibiotics and many other factors can deplete the good bacteria that are normally found in our stomach and intestines. My understanding is they are important to good digestion and proper functioning of the bowls.

      So, I take one probiotic pill each morning at breakfast. They come in various strengths from 2 billion up to 12 billion (and yes, that is billion) cultures of various strains of "good" bacteria. They are sold over the counter at any drug or grocery store.

      I have been taking them regularly for over a year. The only time I stop is when I am on antibiotics for some reason. Those pills kill the bad and good bacteria in your system. After the normal 10 day period for those pills, I start back up on the probiotics to build up the good bacteria again. After just a few days I am regular and feeling good. I believe they have helped me end some stomach and intestinal issues.

      I don't know if there is any FDA approved research on probiotics, but they are widely used and seem to work well for me. Hope this helps.

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    5. I read a fascinating book that goes along with what Lydgate says about the immune system. It's call "The Evidence of Absence". One of the most interesting books I've ever read as it speaks to the issues of too much anti bacterial this and that, kids no longer playing in dirt and how many very poor people in third world countries while having bacterial problems from dirty water etc., have very little auto immune conditions that is so prevalent in our culture...

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    6. Wrong title on that book...Epidemic of Absence...., not evidence

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  6. Congratulations! You have finally arrived at the threshold of old age! You have now earned the right to sit at the table (or lounge chair) to discuss with your buddies the ailments you have, the medications you take, the foods you can't eat anymore, etc etc. Also, your teeth are now 68 years old. Cracking, chipping, inlays falling out and going to the dentist and discovering that small ache will cost $3600 to repair! See, the dentist wants a new RV and wants you to help pay for it!
    Now, when you and Betty go on a vacation you can sit in matching tubs on some lanai and hold hands and talk about ED! You have ARRIVED!

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    1. I read that true old age starts at 85. Between 70 and 84 we are young-old. At 68 I guess I am considered old-middle age. So, I have a ways to go.

      The matching tubs? If the pills are that great why aren't they in the same tub? Just saying.

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    2. Hahahaha, Bob. Great response to that silly ad.

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  7. I had been taking the same bp med for a couple of years but, suddenly I noticed a lot of swelling in my feet and ankles and bloat in my stomach. No woman wants cankles! After a trip to the doctor, a new one that I like very much, I found out that my bp med has a saline base?!?! A true 'wtf' moment for sure! She changed the medication and in 3 days I've lost 5lb.! All water weight, I'm certain. I should have known to be suspicious because the doctor who prescribed it gave me an 'exam' from across the room 2 years ago and never touched me. Not a bad idea to research meds if you're not sure about the person who prescribed, I think. Lesson learned! We all continue to learn, don't we?
    b

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    1. I have developed the habit of always looking up drug interactions and side effects if I am starting something new. That information is readily available on the Internet in a much more readable form than those densely worded forms that come with each prescription.

      I can relate to your "exam" example. Except for listening to my breathing, my GP didn't even look at my throat before deciding antibiotics were a wise choice. He was wrong, but I would have felt better if he had made the effort.

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  8. My husband built a large fire (downed tree). He got too close to the flame. When he came in, he was light headed and felt terrible. Instead of thinking that the oxygen had been sucked out of the air, we proceeded to go to the hospital. He did all "those"tests- from stint to running. He was put on ten different types of medications.
    Five years later a doctor actually asked about the incident. He told her. She asked if he would like to ween off of the meds. And here we are- together- no meds between the two of us. She said, at his last physical, "That is why we call my work family PRACTICE. When in doubt, most doctors are concerned with CYA and practice by prescribing the sun and the moon. I just don't."

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    1. That is a scary story. Most GPs are just gatekeepers, shuttling patients off to specialists or trying various meds. In the 10 minutes given to a patient most of that time is spent typing on a laptop, not in physically examining the person. I don't blame them, that is our American health care system at work.

      Your hubby is quite fortunate all those pills didn't do any lasting harm. Keep that doctor. She is worth her weight in gold.

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  9. You brought up a part of retirement and aging that we all must face eventually! Even with the best diets and exercise programs the aches and pains of arthritis and other age related illnesses do catch up with us sooner or later. I have also discovered that small nuisance illnesses like a simple cold can stretch out, cause more trouble and last much longer than when I was younger. I recently went through a two week bout of diverticulitis myself and my doctor simply said it was one of those things that is more common "at my age"! Geez, I'm getting tired of hearing that "at my age" line!

    I try to approach my health with common sense by taking care of myself and seeing my doctor when I have to but still keeping an open mind and an awareness of what my body may be trying to tell me. It also never hurts to be kind to ourselves and not overdo the things that used to not cause us any problems!

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    1. "At my age" is something that should be banned from doctor-speak. It is not helpful.

      I started jogging to join my son-in-law and grandson who participate in a lot of local 5 or 10k races. After two weeks of "training" by alternating walking and running, I stopped. My knees were telling me to cut it out. We must listen to what our body says. That doesn't mean not pushing ourselves to see what our limits are. But, when those limits have been exceeded - stop.

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    2. It sounds like you learned an important lesson with your jogging. We do need to listen to our body. I try to walk a lot but some days I have to shorten the distance and some days it is simply too hot to walk outside. I think the important thing is that we keep doing what we can and adjust when necessary!

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  10. I am 63 now and while I am not an idiot when it comes to age limitations, I am one of those people who refuses to say anything is age related. If I am not running as well it is because I need to amp up the routine. If I got tired faster doing some heavy chores, it was because I have been slacking off and not doing enough. I find keeping this attitude does make the occasional aches and pains more manageable, at least in my mind.

    To show how over-prescribed we are as a society, I take no prescription medications. Vitamins and some mineral supplements are all I ever have taken. When I tell a doctor or medical professional they look at me like I'm crazy, almost asking "do I want to take anything"? Particularly with the opioid abuse here in TN and elsewhere, my willingness to take anything from the drug profession right about now is nil.

    Hang in there, Bob. As you said, aging has consequences, but it beats the alternative, to borrow an overused phrase.

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    1. Like you, up until 2 years ago I took no prescription pills on a regular basis. Vitamins sure, but nothing that needed a doctor's form. I even hesitated to take an Ibuprofen. After the heart issue I had to take 4 different pills for the first year, then cut back to just two. Now, I am on just a statin for cholesterol and a baby aspirin once a day. Doctors are often surprised I am not on more.

      In the last few years of her life my mom was taking 14 different pills a day. I am sure that massive amount of medicines did more damage than good.

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    2. I believe there's a lot of truth in what you say, Chuck. We tend to slow down/slack off too much as we age and doing that compounds what seem to be age related issues.

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  11. Western (American) "Doctors" are very inexperienced at understanding how to teach people to stay or even get well.They also don't know how to "fix" a LOT of stuff that results from our lifestyle choices.So, when we have GERD they order a test.(Then, meds.) When we complain of back pain they order a test or an Xray. (Then,meds.) Or an EXPENSIVE MRI! When we are depressed, well, so are they! They prescribe a drug that the drug rep recommended. Western medicine does not know much about true health.We have to take it upon ourselves to investigate and make lifestyle changes that help us feel our best! I'm delighted that the docs can set a bone or deal with an emergency.But I don't count on them for health. Heart issues? So much info out there on how to reverse heart disease! It's lifestyle and diet. And the news is GOOD! Your IMMUNE SYSTEM is a miracle of creation! Positive thinking and a few lifestyle changes can make a BIG DIFFERENCE. I like Dr. Andrew Weil's books on health for helping to move us into remembering what a miracle the body is and how much we can influence what happens to us as we age.

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    1. Our medical system rewards those who treat symptoms, not root causes. Besides being terribly inefficient, that approach doesn't work long term. You are always playing catch up instead of working to prevent something in the first place!

      Thanks, Madeline. And you and Ken keep that Vegan/Vegetarian push going. You report real benefits.

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    2. It's been a journey. We have tried this full force maybe 3 different times and somehow fell off the wagon.In the past we did YEARS of vegetarianism, but that is not necessarily healthy: we ate cheese, fats, just not good. Now, we have a couple of mentors that have opened up some new info--and we are doing better than we have ever done before. Also--I have found BETTER COOKBOOKS!! We are older now! And feel a bigger need to be much better with our diet! That said, we still eat PIE !!!!! I am researching restaurants in Sedona that have menus we can enjoy for my birthday visit.i do not want to eat animals anymore. -- we will eat more FATS than usual, but no animal products. It's a journey!! I can say, I did 14 days STRICT VEGAN and ALL my aches and pains cleared up- it was pretty dramatic!! I know everyone is on their own exploration ..so keep researching! <3

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    3. and let us know what would be a good snack for all of us when we have our game time next month.

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    4. After 9 years of living with several autoimmune diseases and being over 65 most doctors try but are not paid to spend time with you to figure out what is causing all the symptoms. Second if there is one med for symptoms, two or three prescriptions are better (damn the interactions). If there is no med that seems to work, the doctor is no longer interested. Major disease professional organizations are supported by the pharmaceutical industry and have one answer, the prescription.
      Reading your post sounds very similar to my own experience. Exercise every day, eat healthy balance diet, get enough sleep and laugh at least once each day.

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    5. Madeline, your story is inspiring and I think you're right on! I'm intrigued by a website called christbeatcancer.com (I'm not affiliated with it in any way.). There is testimonial after testimonial of folks who have cured cancer by overdosing on nutrition. I can't help but think: if a plant-based diet can fuel the immune system to knock out something serious like cancer, what about our other ailments?

      I'm still in my 50s so time will tell, but little-by-little I'm moving in that direction and I can't remember the last time I was sick. I do still eat some meat, but I'm sticking with a big fresh salad and a green smoothie nearly every day.

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    6. That's chrisbeatcancer.com. [It's not a religious site!]

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  12. Became the owner of a coronary artery stent 5 years ago (and like you, no heart attack). Just found out last week that my difficulty in getting glasses that correct my vision is due to cataracts. Surgery on both eyes next month. I increasingly feel like an old car headed down a mountain road with bad brakes.... fenders rattling, frame squeaking and the occasional bolt or rivet popping off.

    I have committed to doing as much as I can to slow the descent, but I am not optimistic. So I have decided to enjoy the ride, much like Slim Pickens (as Major Kong) did in "Dr. Strangelove."

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3edi2Wkr5YI

    Rick in Oregon

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    1. I know the feeling, Rick. But as several have noted, it doesn't mean we have to take it lying down. We fight back and keep living the best we can, even if our bumpers are falling off.

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    2. Cataract surgery was great for me. My vision hasn't been this good since I was 12 years old.

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    3. I need to hear cataract success stories right now. Thanks!

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    4. Ditto! I went from 20/3000 (blind essentially) to 20/40 with cataract surgery. As creepy as it is to have anyone mess with your eyes, it's painless.

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    5. I had bi-lateral cataract surgery (I am 60) last year, and it was life changing! I have worn glasses since I was a 2yr old, born with Esotropia. Had surgery at 3 to correct. My vision was getting worse and I was waiting for the cataracts to be bad enough for our insurance to cover it. I cannot say it was painless... I needed more anesthesia! But the results...!!! AMAZING!!! I could see myself in the mirror for the first time in my memory!! It was such a great surgery for me!! I have an astigmatism, and I paid the extra for corrective lenses ($2k/each) - my total was about $5k out of pocket. I would (and have) recommend it to many people!! It is important to get a good surgeon, who does many and who has a high success rate. My procedure lasted less than 6 minutes!! Get referrals!! I now wear glasses with a very slight correction for reading, but I can still read my iPhone without any glasses!!! I highly recommend cataract surgery - I have also had Glaucoma surgery (5 years ago) for Bi-lateral Acute Closed Angle closure. That too was pretty painful - more than cataract surgery. It had to be done twice. Take care of your eyes - you only get one pair!

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    6. Rick, I know two folks who had had successful cataract surgery and welcome the improvement in their eye sight. My eye doctor says I have the beginnings of cataracts in one eye but am several years away from needing an operation. When it is time I plan on having the surgery.

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    7. Thanks, Bob and others.

      My ophthalmologist told me it would be a number of years before I would need to get anything done. That was six months ago. He told me last week, "well, they develop slowly.... until they don't."

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  13. Madeline, I agree with you about Western medicine. It can be a lifesaver for acute injuries. Not so good at dealing with the chronic stuff.

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned alternative medicine -- acupuncture, chiropractic, massage, yoga, exercise modified for injuries, Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Using many of these modalities has kept my quality of life up and allowed me to very slowly improve. Also stretching and weight lifting, both modified for my injuries/chronic joint issues.

    rainguynw, several of my colleagues had cataract surgery and wished they'd done it sooner. Fabulous outcomes, no pain, vision even better than in their youth.

    Bob, sorry to hear about your health concerns.

    When I get discouraged, I am inspired by my grandparents, who did hard physical farm labor all their lives into their 80s and largely kept their quality of life. Doctors said their bodies were like those of people 20 years younger. In contrast, my parents stopped moving and exercising in their 50s and slowly lost their quality of life. Talk about motivation to keep moving and exercise!

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    1. Thanks for mentioning the alternative approaches. Chiropractic care has helped me quite a bit when my hips or back get out of whack. One or two adjustments and the pain goes away.

      My parents were like your parents. They never exercised, except later in life my dad played 18 holes of golf once a week. That wasn't enough to keep him in shape. I don't think my mom exercised a day in her life and it showed in the last decade of her life.

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  14. I think dealing with the inevitable aches and pains and parts that no longer function the way they used to of an aging body is one of the trickiest parts of aging. I am what medical professionals refer to as a 'minimizer' -- someone inclined not to take symptoms very seriously (this is reinforced by the fact that i apparently have a high pain threshold that leaves me feeling uncomfortable when others would be screaming in pain). As I age, I've had to learn to tell my primary care practitioner about the small things I don't think are very serious. (She has my number, so she praises me for doing this in order to reinforce the behavior.) One of the ironies of my health care situation is that I live in a rural area with a serious doctor shortage, which means that my primary care practitioner is now a Physician Assistant, from whom I'm getting the best health care of my life. Because she is paid less than a doctor, health insurance allows her to spend more time with each patient. The result is thoughtful, thorough care from someone with whom I have a relationship of equality. -Jean

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    1. That is an interesting insight into the role of a PA and one positive aspect. I wouldn't have thought of that. I have always had good experiences with Physician Assistants. They do seem to be more involved than a regular MD.

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