YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Say 'Aaah' | Booster shots

A Portrait of the Perfectly Aged Human

February 12, 2001|Rosie Mestel

A week or so ago, I wrote about why backs can go bad with old age. Turns out the March issue of Scientific American--in the stores later this month--has a whole article about the design of the human body and why it fails us in later years. Bodies, the authors say, simply weren't designed to last that long.

"If you look at the human body from the perspective of an engineer, we're operating those machines well beyond their warranty periods," says lead author S. Jay Olshansky, professor of biostatistics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (He wrote the article with colleagues Bruce Carnes and Robert Butler.)

Olshansky and Co.'s article--titled "If Humans Were Built to Last"--has some scary drawings of what our bodies would look like if they'd been designed to stay strong and sturdy into old age.

Here are some ways our bodies would be different, and why:

* Our knees wouldn't be able to lock. That way of standing puts a huge force on the leg bones and joints, rendering them prone to fractures and arthritis. Our knees, instead, would bend backward, and there'd be more muscles and tendons to support them. The downside would be that we couldn't stand in one place for long--so queuing at Disneyland wouldn't be as enjoyable as it currently is.

* We'd have much more flesh around our bones to help protect them when we fall. The thicker layers of muscle would also make hernias less likely to develop.

* We'd have thicker, denser bones to protect against osteoporosis. And big fat discs that wouldn't wear out by the time we reached later life.

* We'd have a few extra ribs thrown in for good measure to provide more places to attach bits of gut and organs so they wouldn't start shifting and sagging.

* Our eyes would be more like squids' in design, because the optic nerve and retina are less likely to detatch in those critters.

* We'd have a lot more sensory cells in our ears so we wouldn't lose our hearing (from exposure to decades of noise) and they'd be cupped and able to swivel so they could pick up more sound. (Olshansky also added some points to the ears--but that's because he's a "Star Trek" fan.)

* We'd have a lower center of gravity! (Less chance of falling.) A bent-forward torso! (Reducing strain on the back that could lead to slipped discs.) And our heads would be tilted up like a chicken's, so our new posture wouldn't have us staring at the ground all the time.

* The net result: we'd look like little, sturdy pixies. Definitely a new view of perfection.

Crosswords and Casts for Country Folk

I'd rather have my brain retooled than my body, however. Then perhaps I'd be able to solve a set of tricky crosswords I stumbled on in a folksy journal called the Canadian Journal of Rural Medicine http://( Put out by a society of rural doctors, its covers depict meadows and forests and snow-covered country lanes.

Inside, you'll read all kinds of articles about doctoring in the back of beyond--such as whether family doctors should be able to administer anesthetics without specialized training, step-by-step guides to setting casts on patients' legs and discussion about just what constitutes a rural doctor anyway.

Some places, after all--think Aspen, think Napa Valley--are in the country but not exactly remote, nor devoid of medical specialists (especially, we'd imagine, aesthetic plastic surgeons and dermatologists). Some docs have even devised "rurality indexes" to deal with this knotty issue.

Back to that crossword page! It's a regular feature of the journal. I have this vision of docs pondering the clues as they jog happily along in their buggies, black medicine bags at their sides. Or the whole family poring over the crossword by oil lamp as it huddles round the stove during blizzard season. (Romantic twaddle, of course, though at the society's annual professional hoedown, there is going to be old-time square dancing.)

The puzzles are of the cryptic variety, filled with word play and with medical references--and they're tough! Like the doctors. I sat there like a doofus trying to figure out answers to clues like "Hole in the head of evil American" (the answer's sinus, as in sin and U.S.) and "occult eye suspiciously cast upon blood product" (leukocyte, and I still don't know why).

Check out the latest crossword--its solution isn't yet published--at If you complete it, feel free to let me know--no cheating!--so I can feel even more of a doofus.


If you have an idea for a topic, contact Rosie Mestel, L.A. Times, 202 W. 1st. St., L.A., CA 90012;

Los Angeles Times Articles