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Big-Picture Health Thinking
Over the past few years, I've spent a fair bit of time thinking about, assessing, and tweaking my health-related activities and investments.
This is partially the consequence of arriving on the far-side of 35 (I recently turned 38), partially the result of having made it through (what was hopefully) the height of a global pandemic, and it’s partially tied to a series of health-related issues I’ve recently suffered (much of that suffering caused by a slew of unknowns that are now, thankfully, far more known).
It's also somewhat tied to my larger desire to make decisions, today, that increase my range of options and freedoms in the future; that's at the root of my "investment" strategy, whether we're talking about finances, skills and knowledge, or my many biological considerations.
Thus, I've been looking for blindspots and weaknesses in my existing setup, horizon-scanning for options and opportunities I might have previously overlooked (or which may have only recently become available), and learning what I can about what comes next: what happens to our bodies and minds as we age, and how I might build myself reliable foundations, now, so that as I get older I'm in a better position to enjoy the sort of lifestyle I'd like to live for as long as possible.
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I've arrived at some rough conclusions, all of which are malleable and prone to change as new research is done (and as I learn new things about how all this health stuff works in general and how it applies to my own body and circumstances), but which are also concrete enough, today, for me to act upon them and build them into my plans and investment strategies.
Here’s an incomplete list which, again, is quite rough, but also actionable-enough for my current purposes:
There will always be trendy approaches to everything health-related. In general, it seems to be prudent to avoid branded products and diets (Atkin's, Bulletproof) and extreme versions of named systems (keto, vegan, intermittent fasting) in favor of more flexible, less market-driven options (I’m about 85% vegetarian, for instance).
That flexibility seems to be key in any health-related system I might establish. Habits, rituals, routines are all good for making sure I remember to work out, take me-specific medications, and eat on a rough schedule that lines up with my priorities and needs, but it's also important to be able to break these habits whenever necessary (or when I just feel like it) and still feel good, healthy, strong, clear-headed, etc. There’s some evidence that semi-regularly breaking these schedules on purpose might actually net some benefits, as well (I typically use Sundays as “habit disruption days” for almost all my usual norms).
There are a few core considerations that seem to influence every other component of a big-picture health plan, all of which should thus ideally receive a lot of time and attention (because even if we manage other, smaller-scale, tactical issues, these larger strategic ones can nudge those efforts off-course if not properly wrangled): psychological well-being, sleep, proper inputs, and managing one's intrinsic dispositions.
Psychological well-being means feeling good about oneself, having the right sorts of relationships (based on one’s needs and preferences), feeling a sense of accomplishment (like the work one does matters in some way, or that we’re capable of doing difficult things), and generally being capable of handling stressful situations in a healthful way.
Sleep is intertwined with essentially every other component of our health, including our psychological health, as it regulates our other systems and maintains vital elements of our brain functionality; thus, getting proper sleep is key, as is managing the elements that can help us or hinder us in getting said sleep (screen use, darkness, temperature, inputs like alcohol that disallow proper sleep, the ability to consistently wind-down at the end of the day, etc).
Proper inputs, as I’m using the phrase in this context, refers to our food and drink intakes (getting enough of the right kind of nutrition for our lifestyles and specific bodily needs), but also experiencing awe and effortful satisfaction (engaging with art, accomplishing difficult things), feeling love and other sorts of human connection (spending time with friends and other loved ones, feeling appreciation for others while also feeling appreciated by others), and our relationships with things like drugs, alcohol, etc.
And when I say “inbuilt dispositions” I mean things like our genetic peculiarities, but also our psychological leanings, habitual preferences, and other things of that nature (I recently learned I have an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto’s Disease, for instance, which among other things tweaks how I process some nutrients, and is kept in check by taking a small dose of synthetic thyroid hormone each morning—but this can also apply to a psychological disposition toward anger, a habitual disposition toward having a glass of wine before going to sleep, and other tendencies or biases of that kind).
There are a lot of cool, interesting substances and procedures available to relatively few people, today (mostly but not exclusively wealthy people), that may end up being real-deal amazing additions to our health-related regimens at some point in the future (and it’s worth keeping an open mind about such things). Most of us would be better served, today, though, by focusing on the core things that we know work (and which most people don’t focus on because they require time, energy, and effort, and don’t always show immediate results): sleeping better, rebalancing our diets, working out in ways that are appropriate to our situations and ambitions, and addressing mental health issues.
On the subject of diet, many people in the wealthy world would seem to be best served by eating less ultra-processed food, eating less food in general (though this isn’t always the case—it’s really a matter of getting exactly the right amount of the right foods for our bodies, lifestyles, etc), and maybe learning to cook, as that makes us more aware of the specifics of what we’re consuming (while also giving us more power over what we put into our bodies).
As we get older, the structure of our bodies becomes ever more vital: a lot of the problems older folks face revolve around a lack of stability, flexibility, and balance. It’s important to build up enough muscle that the natural depletion of those muscles as we age (this seems to begin in our 30s and just gets worse with each new decade for most people), but providing the proper scaffolding for these muscles (bones, connective tissues, etc) is arguably just as, if not more important, as that’s what allows us to stand, walk, and healthfully manage our bodies at any age, and a lack of such scaffolding is what leads to many of the injuries that cause age-related cascading bodily failures (falling and breaking something, which leads to less body use, a more rapid depletion of muscle and less productive straining of the overall system, and eventual, possible collapse, for instance). Body weight resistance exercises, alongside just using our bodies to lift and move things (with proper form) that are heavier than we would typically lift and move seems to be a good, consistently recommended combination, here, alongside balance-related exercises (yoga and similar things).
Over a long enough period, with current technologies and biological realities, we will die. Much of the medical science from the 20th century helped us push that ceiling upward, for most people, which gave us heightened average lifespans (which is pretty cool). The dominant effort of the 21st century, for most serious people in this space, at least, seems to be increasing healthspan (the number of years we’re alive and functional enough to enjoy life, physically and mentally), and I think that’s wonderful—though many of our healthcare systems are still prioritizing lifespan over all else; which is arguably better than nothing, but will hopefully change sometime soon (it takes a lot to adjust the course of such lumbering bureaucracies, though, so it could take a while). This is part of why many people find they have to be their own advocate when it comes to preventative healthcare, rather than reactive healthcare, and part of why some of the best things for us are lifestyle adjustments that will reduce our dependence on these systems, rather than solutions coming from within the systems, themselves.
At the same time, it’s important not to be reflexively anti-healthcare-system (and anti-medicine), as that can cause us to make just as many silly, non-ideal decisions as fully aligning ourselves with systems that prioritize surgeries and medications over preventative, healthful behavioral changes (and other such approaches). Build a solid structure, make repairs to that structure as necessary, and use the best tools for any given situation (without becoming dogmatic about any specific approach, and defining yourself in accordance with any particular movement or health-related posture).
Psychological health is tricky, as a lot of what we think we know about psychology and how it’s practiced is based on flimsy studies and bizarrely outdated professional infrastructure—but the general idea that it’s valuable to talk to someone about things you’re otherwise bottling up, that it’s worthwhile to take stock of how you respond to things like stress and conflict (and then attempt to change the responses that are hurting rather than helping you) seem to be generally positive concepts (whether you engage in them with a professional or with friends, family, or even just a journal you write in regularly). We all have access to different types of external support systems, too, so none of this is (or can be) one-size-fits all: pop-psychology trends won’t serve all of us, but if we generally orient ourselves toward more self-understanding, being more generous with ourselves (and our many imperfections and failings) and doing our best to be positive influences on the world (and the other people in it), we’ll tend to move in the right direction, even if the specifics will vary substantially from person to person.
This is a very rough, still in-development outline of how I’m understanding and organizing this collection of knowledge and themes, and it’ll no doubt change as I read more, experiment more, and make adjustments to my own lifestyle and priorities (based on my own developing needs and outcomes).
In general, though, I think identifying red threads that run through most thinking and research in these fields, while also looking for and focusing on overarching, interconnected (and actionable) themes (sleep and psychological well-being, for instance) should allow most people to move in a generally positive direction, while still allowing for more specific, minute tweaks (based on novel, species-wide understandings, and human-scale self-discoveries) along the way.