A few days after my 61st birthday, I fainted.
Turning 60 last year was fun; my wife gave me a surprise party. I was stunned and touched. Sixty-one is different. This time I’m stunned at how much gravity increased in just a year.
I think a lot about aging. My clients are retirees and so I spend my working hours with folks who average about 81 years of age. They run the gamut from ballroom dance champions to wheelchair inhabitants. But my own aging? About all I considered was an ascending waist size.
Until yesterday's swoon.
I had an episode of coughing syncope, a fancy name for a cough-induced fainting spell. Happens mostly to overweight middle aged men who are heavy drinkers. I drink very little but bingo, bingo, bingo for the other three elements. Coughing presses the blood vessels in the neck against the vagal nerve—one of the twelve cranial nerves, the nervous system’s data bus. Ol’ Mr. Vagal sends scrambled instructions to Mr. Brain: slow the heart and open the blood vessels in the legs. Gravity carries blood south. Starved of oxygen and glucose, the brain goes into suspend mode. Hold On Hannah, lights out.
Coughing syncope produces what medics call a 'postural change.' All fall down. Fortunately I was sitting at my desk and merely sprawled from seated to supine. Could have been worse: I might have been at the wheel of my fine European automobile (2005 Volvo wagon, 100,000 miles) or walking a two-by-four over whitewater rapids. All I did was break my eyeglasses and end up with a knock on the noggin.
Scared the crap outta me, though. I thought long and hard about my aging clients. Here's what I've learned from them—the nonagenarian ballroom dance champions, the octogenarian scientist, the paralyzed septuagenarian.
- It takes less of anything to do the trick. Sugar, caffeine, alcohol, etc. Metabolism changes with age. My motto used to be, “Too much of anything is just enough” but now it’ll be, “Just half of that, please.”
- Be prepared. My wife and I knew the symptoms of a stroke (dizziness, numbness, confusion, difficulty walking or speaking) so we could rule that out. We learned the causes of syncope in a hurry. If I have a coughing spell while driving, I’ll pull over. And I’ll be spending a few quality minutes with my physician, which will surely lead to many more minutes with specialists. The docs employ many diagnostic tools. They need to rule out any dangerous condition, including malpractice.
- If you hear a big crash from another part of the house, it’s OK to ask, “What happened?” and to investigate if there’s no reply. Coughing syncope usually self-resolves in about one to three minutes, but I had a bit of a struggle getting back up again.
- Rules are made to be broken. After the episode I lay down and wondered what the hell was going on. Jody put a beach towel on the bed—what the heck? She’s expecting surf?—and then placed Zippy the dog at my side for comfort. Dog on the bed is a big no-no…except when it isn’t.
- Keep a sense of humor. When I started this post, I researched quotes on age and aging. My second favorite, courtesy of actress Bette Davis: “Growing old isn’t for sissies.” My favorite? A little bon mot from the great sage Groucho Marx: "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana."