We Are Either Growing or We Are Dying

As humans, we are the most unpredictable creatures on the planet. We have such varying mental and emotional capacities, that as individuals, our actions are almost impossible to predict. But physically, we are much easier to figure out. We are conceived, we grow, we stop growing, and we eventually die. The framework of this process is completely beyond our control, but we do have quite a bit to say about the inputs and the outputs of each of these stages. Our actions play a part in how healthy we are during each phase and how long each phase may last (especially the period between early adulthood and middle age).

Further, the quality of the later stage (old age) depends highly on the quality of our most critical, middle age stage. If we can stay healthy and maintain a level of strength and fitness that resembles our earlier adult years, we can extend this stage and the transition into old age well beyond what most people believe is possible. But if we fail to maintain this level of health and fitness, the momentum of sedentarism will build to a point that will feel almost impossible to overcome.

The human organism can be broken down into a hierarchy of subcategories starting with body systems, each of which is made up of organs, which are made up of types of tissues, which are made up of types of cells. Each of these levels has its own physiological pathway of growth, recovery and repair, or decay. And only one of these stages on the pathway can be active at any given time.

Each cell, each tissue, each organ, each system is either growing, recovering, or dying. And as our systems go, so does the organism (us).

Growth Stage

At conception, our being, our essence takes advantage of the phenomenal growth results of cell division. We start as a single fertilized cell, which grows and divides itself over and over again until, nine months later, we are a full fledged being ready for our introduction to the outside world.

While our rate of growth has slowed immensely by this time, we will still double our weight before age one, and then again by age three. This growth rate will continue to slow with another doubling by age 8, a final doubling (hopefully) by age fourteen, and adding on some change as we approach adulthood.

While our outward growth appears to come to a halt, inside us our cells continue to grow and divide, but this time this rate is only enough to keep up with our cells death rate. This equilibrium, this homeostasis is by design. A beautiful design.

Repair and Recovery Stage

The cells within our bodies have evolved along with us and have become highly specialized. But they haven’t always been that way. They started out as single celled organisms that evolved into the multi-celled organisms that we are today. They have evolved to take part and play a role in an incredibly complex organization that we call our body. But, chances are, they have no clue that they are a part of.

So, when we speak of cellular repair, for the most part, we are not talking about the cell repairing itself, but more like replacing itself. We have systems in place that detect when damage has taken place and which cells are needed for repair. Each cell carries the same genetic code, but only accesses a tiny part of that code.

For the sake of brevity, let’s just say that when the cells are doing their job properly, the tissues that they make up do their jobs properly, the organs that the tissues make up do their jobs properly, and the systems that the organs make up do their jobs properly. All that is needed to keep this entire set of systems working is if the organism that these systems make up does its job properly.

If the organism, us, incurs some kind of damage or infection, the signal for repair works its way down this chain to the cellular level and in most cases, the damage is repaired. The recovery period being determined by the amount of damage and the ability of the systems to make the repair. The healthier the systems, and ultimately, the organism (us), the quicker the repair.

Most often this process of repair and recovery can take place and the affected tissue-organ-system goes back to functioning at 100%. In fact, it may even perform better than it did before. This fascinating process has the effect of preparing for the next possible occurrence by improving itself. Sometimes the process is unable to repair the affected tissue completely, leaving it to perform below what’s ideal. When this occurs, the organism (us) is left to compensate for this less than ideal performance. If it’s our knee, we develop a limp and get by, but if it’s something internal, we may be forced to just accept the limitation.

Eventually, the residual damage that we incur over a lifetime builds up, and it is this build up of damage that slows us down and makes us less productive. For our ancestors, this was most likely a death sentence, but for us today, we have ways of providing for ourselves that allow for a much less physically-productive individual to survive. The big question is whether our body's control center understands this. 

Decay Stage

Humans, as with any species, or any kind of creature for that matter, have a shelf life. We all must die, it is the only way that a species can survive. Nature not only understands this, but has designed it into us. Our entire evolution has been determined through our interaction with our environment. This evolution includes a long gestation period in the womb, a slow early growth period (our childhood), allowing our enlarged brains the time needed to develop, a rapid child-bearing and rearing period, and then an abrupt and truncated period of physical decline known as “middle-age”, a quick descent into old-age for the lucky few, and finally death.

For many of our ancestors, our decay was the result of a lifetime of hard living, where survival was the exception as much as the norm. Death came directly, or indirectly, as a result of this lifestyle. 

Today is a much different story. Nature, our environment specifically, poses little if no danger to us directly. While most of the damage we endure through our adult years is self-inflicted, if we were to eliminate most of the causes of our demise, we are still left with internal systems that were not designed to live much past middle age, nor were they required to. Many of the processes that evolved to maximize our chances of getting through our reproductive and child rearing years, are the very ones that bring and accelerate our decay.

But it gets worse. There are theories, the disposable soma theory for one, that claim that not being designed to live into old age is not a design flaw, but a feature. As our human ancestors lived past their child-rearing years, they became a drain on the community’s resources. They became a liability that nature could not allow. 

We are programmed to age, to fall apart, and to eventually die. At this point all we can do is push back on this inevitable fact. 

What Can We Do?

Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to push back. The first thing we might do is ask a few questions.
  • How does our body, more specifically the systems that run our body, know when to start winding things down?
  • How does it know when we can no longer reproduce?
  • How does it know when we can no longer produce for our family and our community?

The health of our body depends so heavily on the balance or homeostasis of the chemicals and hormones in our bodies, that any delay in correcting a significant imbalance can lead to illness both acute and chronic. As we approach and advance through middle age, we notice profound changes in hormone levels, producing a new homeostasis. This drop in hormone production leads to loss of strength, bone density, cardio and respiratory capacity, and even sex drive.

If we can see the correlation and even suspect that it might be cause and effect, we may have to ask ourselves - Do we slow down because we are getting old, or are we getting old because we are slowing down?

If we can find ways to keep those hormone levels (the possible system indicators) from dropping, maybe we can convince our body, or the mechanism that controls it, that we are still productive, that we are still reproducing, that we are still needed. At the very least, maybe we can convince our bodies that we are not liabilities.

Read More - Our Potential Peak Performance Curve (Coming soon!)


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