si_fuller (si_fuller) wrote,

Facing Life, Facing Death: Turning 40

I have turned 40. What does that mean? Once 40 was an important milestone socially. Before that it was more of a tombstone. Now, is it just a number? Is it no more relevant than age 27 or 59? Well, yes and no. It is a time of the midlife crisis, a time when it starts to become obvious to most people that they are mortal. A time where you transition from “growing older” to “growing old”. But what is growing old? Well, we know what it is, but surprisingly, nobody knows why. We’ve read the genomes of pigs, we’ve landed robots on Mars, but our intellects are humbled, for now at least, by our own most personal and basic functions. There are hypotheses, but nothing proven yet. I’ll go through some below, just for morbidity’s sake (if you’ll excuse the pun).

This is what is happening to me. It is happening to everyone, but the effects accumulate the older you get. Firstly, the elastin in my body is breaking down. My skin is getting wrinkles and is beginning to sag, and my joints are starting to feel stiff for longer in the mornings or if I’ve been still for too long. Eventually, my skin will not stretch at all, and that stiffness will last all day. Likewise the collagen is breaking down, with similar effects. But it is most visible because my lips are getting thinner and my cheeks are less round. Eventually my skull will be quite prominent. The testosterone that is so prevalent in my male body is damaging all sorts of processes, not least my hair. This means my forehead is more visible year by year, though so far I haven’t done too badly there, it’s obvious that my hairline isn’t where it used to be. Ironically, hair continues to colonise all sorts of strange places on my body. Nobody ever told me as a teen that one day I’d have to shave my earlobes. Unfortunately testosterone does nastier things than just bruise your vanity, all sorts of cancers become increasingly likely due to its presence. The hormone does amazing things, but it’s also a killer.

Every day I live, my very DNA is eroding. Cells divide in my body constantly as bits are replaced or healed, on a scale to tiny to notice. But every time a cell divides, the DNA has to be copied. No system is perfect, any time you copy information, be it a computer file or a photocopy or a string of self-replicating amino acids, errors will sometimes occur. And those errors will be repeated every time from then on, gradually joined by more and more errors over the years. And the entire string is never copied over. A miniscule stub is left behind. It’s a part of your chromosomes called telomeres. It’s inconsequentially small, but it eventually starts to add up. Eventually the telomeres will become so short that the DNA can’t be copied over, finally stopping the cell from dividing any further. On top of all that, we are all constantly moving through a tsunami of radiation and other sources of damage. Cosmic rays from the sky, radiation released by decaying stone from the earth, chemicals from our food and viruses from the air, all attack us. We evolved for these conditions of course, so there’s no need to worry about it, but there’s no way to protect yourself completely, and our DNA, our genes, can be damaged at any time, and often will be. When the DNA gets too damaged, it’ll either not work or it will work wrong, which means cancer.

Meanwhile, every cell in my body is creating waste as it functions. Most of that waste is carried away, but not all of it. One such waste product is lipofuscin. This is found in such places as my nerve endings, my liver, my kidneys, and my heart, and it is very slowly building up. Eventually it will build up so much that the cells themselves will be so buried in their own waste that they won’t be able to function. Once a majority of cells are buried in pollution, the organ will inevitably fail.

Free radicals are running rampant in my body. That’s not all bad, my body actually uses them to fight bacteria, for my cells to communicate to each other, and other functions. But unfortunately they also can damage my cells. They can attach to my DNA and damage it. Beside the cancers this can cause, the free radicals might also give me diabetes, Alzheimer's, or a bundle of other nasties.

Finally, there’s simple wear and tear. My body, even with gentle care can only take so much before it’s like an old shirt - misshapen, faded, full of holes and one little tug away from tearing completely.

Physical frailty aside, there are other changes that are becoming more obvious as I age. My brain is becoming less elastic, the creases that mark neural paths are getting deeper and more substantial. This means I’m becoming more prone to be stuck in my ways. Gone are the days when I’d instantly adapt to something new; the very shape of my brain demands that I prefer things the way I’m used to. Further, established neural connections mean that certain stimuli, whether they be as subtle as a mild scent or complex as a passage in a book, are associated with certain thought processes, certain memories. As I age it gets harder for me to experience things in new ways, for events and stimuli to evoke original thoughts. In short, my sense of wonder is becoming excluded by routine. Now, it is scientific fact that pop music is becoming blander and more homogenised with every passing year, which means that I personally am able to enjoy it less, but the fact is I’m increasingly in danger of losing touch with new music. Soon I may only be able to fully appreciate music from my era, or music that apes that sound. Anything new will be confusing to me, my static brain will not be able to identify or adapt, and each step in musical trends I miss, the more confusing the whole will become. Likewise, technology will eventually leave me behind. Especially since the rate of progress is always accelerating. There are still old people today who won’t use an ATM. What will I find simply too much effort to learn? Some technology none of us today has dreamed of, no doubt.

So this is aging. At least it is several hypotheses on what aging is. In reality nobody knows why exactly we grow old. We’ve read the genomes of pigs, we’ve landed robots on Mars, but we don’t know exactly why we age. Our intellects are humbled, for now at least, by our own most personal and basic functions (which actually makes the chance of unlocking immortality in my lifetime fairly unlikely). What is certain is that from 40 onwards, I will lose pigmentation in my hair so that it turns grey or white, I will become increasingly fragile, my organs will degrade, my skin will wrinkle and discolour, my muscles will weaken, my metabolism will change, I will grow increasingly tired and stiff and sore, and eventually, inevitably, one system or another will fail, leading to a catastrophic failure throughout my body and I will die.

The saying “life begins at 40” came about in the 20th century. A time when by age 40, your children will have grown up, your home loan will be paid off, and you can sit back and relax a bit. Today, when home loans take a lifetime to repay and children are born much later and leave home later still, it just doesn’t have that bang to it. It turns out “life begins at 40” was first coined by Walter Pitkin, and it was a twist on an earlier saying that was common in the 19th century, “death begins at 40”. Back then a lot of people didn’t live past their 40s, so death really did begin then. Today, it marks the halfway point. Today the life expectancy as a man in Australia is looking like 79.5 years, though I only have a 41.5% chance of surviving past age 85. Now I’m a fairly healthy and fit vegetarian, which makes it likely I’ll live longer. On the other hand I’m prone to anxiety and stomach complaints, which must rub the seconds away. And my longest-lived grandparent died in her mid-70s, so the odds go down a bit more. And of course the future could hold anything. Australia could go broke and the life expectancy would tumble. Scientific progress could unlock the secrets of longevity or even immortality and make it available to me (assuming they figure out what actually causes aging in the first place). I could drop dead before you finish reading this. Or I could naturally live to 120. But most likely, it is safe to say that I have now lived slightly more than half my life. I have more years behind me than in front of me. Death is no longer an abstract, but a certainty that edges ever closer. Actually that was always true, but it’s becoming ever more obvious.

It’s not so bad though. Thinking back, I've lived a really long time. And I can’t even remember much of the first decade. Having all those years ahead of me makes me think that another adage, “life is short”, is absolute nonsense. When I was a teenager, I hoped I’d never live to 30. That’s not an uncommon idea for teenagers. It’s also, in hindsight, pretty stupid. I don’t recall if I ever thought about being 40 back then, but now that I’m here, it’s actually pretty good. Sure my body’s not as tolerant of the abuse I once subjected it to, but my life is becoming increasingly comfortable. I’m sure that in a decade, I’ll look back on this time with fondness and be comfortable with being 50. And when I’m 80, If I reach that point, I will no doubt be content enough with that age as well. Life is a journey without pause, whether we want it to be or not. There’s only one destination. There’s no point in trying to stop off at high school, or in your 20s, or at any other time. Time laughs at those who have cosmetic surgery or try to live a second childhood, and they eventually pay for their folly. So since we’re on the journey, it’s best to sit back and enjoy the scenery. I’d love to be physically 20 again, who wouldn’t? But you know what? Today I’m ok with being 40.

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