Higher Living Reflections

The Death Zone

Because of the dearth of oxygen, the region above 26,000 feet (8,000m.) in mountaineering is referred to as the death zone. Only the hardiest or foolhardiest souls venture up to those regions. But in a sense, every person lives in the death zone. It’s part of life. One breath you’re here and before the next, you’re out of here. We prefer not to think of that because it’s a downer. After all, who wants to think of dying when they have so much living to do?

I recall how in my youth I thought I was invincible. Death only happened to others, like our soldiers and Marines slogging through the sauna of Vietnam and to old people. Old as in what I am now. It’s true the odds of dying greatly increase if one’s in a war zone or if they live to a ripened age. At some point, a bomb might explode too close for comfort or the body wears out. But that doesn’t negate the reality that death happens to younger persons for a range of reasons, from disease to bad luck and poor choices.

Generally, the thought of one’s death tends to be a distant concern. However, it becomes more pronounced in our consciousness at around the Medicare threshold age: sixty-five. It’s then that we’re thought to have crossed into the gray stage of life, a limbo or transitional period, not necessarily at the ICU level but, nevertheless, a heartbeat away from being carted off to it or to the beyond given Nature’s ironclad law mandating that which lives must wither and die. That law certainly applies to our physical being. But what about the mind?

Consider whether one’s mind and body wither concurrently. Can one decline faster than the other? Can one fall apart while the other remains relatively intact or even strengthens? Think about how many times you heard that someone was sharp as a tack up to the moment of their earthly departure. Think about physically fit younger people whose minds are destroyed by Alzheimer’s or another malady.

It’s clear that our body and mind don’t age along a parallel course, but often we conflate them and conclude they do. When in my sixties, I ran seven marathons. Prior to that, I couldn’t run one, arguably because of my mindset. Today, I’d be hard pressed to run a half-marathon. Prior to age sixty-five, I didn’t have the wherewithal to write a book, but since then I’ve written four, and a couple more are baking in my writer’s kiln. Further, I used to struggle making headway with the New York Times crossword puzzles. Now, I often crush them, even the weekend editions.

Based on those experiences, I’ve concluded that while my body is slowing and my athletic prowess ebbing, the old noodle is getting stronger. And I’m not alone. Many give testament about adding life to their years by refining their skills in their favorite pastimes, pursuing new ventures, or learning a new language. Or writing a book. So what gives?

We like to say we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, yet we do exactly that with people not only with regard to race, gender, or sexual orientation, but also with their age and the shape or condition of their body. The plain truth is looks are deceiving whether in relation to a book cover or people. We often picture Albert Einstein as the face of brilliance but don’t with Stephen Hawking whose body horrifically contorted from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Yet, their IQs were equivalent, somewhere in the stratosphere.

The mind, like the rest of the body, needs to be exercised and fed healthy nutrients. Throughout life, it’s an ongoing challenge to develop, strengthen, and maintain it. Assuredly, it gets harder as we age, but harder doesn’t mean impossible. In fact, it’s quite possible to not only maintain mental acuity but also to increase it and to retrain the brain in the process. I see that in my senior role models, especially those who cite answers to crossword clues I’m clueless about.

Rather than a downhill trajectory, I compare aging to climbing. Like for mountaineers tramping inexorably up through Mt. Everest’s or K2’s thin air, trekking through one’s later years is not for the faint of heart. It requires a steeliness that only a lifetime of conditioning can prepare one for. Nonetheless, the going can get tough. But when that happens, it helps to keep in mind that while our physical muscles are weakening and perhaps atrophying, we have others, intangible but just as real, that can be toned and put to use.  

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  • Melanie Mulhall
    April 3, 2024 at 7:10 pm

    Well, I can certainly relate to this post. I turned seventy-five in March, and I’m on a one-woman campaign to challenge the assumption many people have about what it means to be seventy-five (or fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty): that we are somehow physically weak and mentally losing it. Neither of those are true for me.

    I work out at the gym ten hours a week, and by that I do not mean that I go and socialize for most of that time. I work out seriously in the weight room, as well as do some cardio and mat work. One of my many friend at the gym is eighty-seven. She’s no slouch. She does sixty pounds on the lat pulldown, does some free weight work (not just machines), and tackles the assisted pullup and dip. We’re not all falling apart.

    As for intellectual/mental capabilities, I’m still editing books, and I’m a better editor than I was ten years ago.

    I guess my point is that it’s a mistake to generalize about those with more than a little seasoning. Jerry, I know I’m preaching to the choir on that. You and I have had more than one conversation about it. Now . . . if we can just get a few others to join us.