Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy and Healthy Birthday

Today is a very important day in history. You may wonder why. Is it because it’s the day Prohibition was repealed in 1933? No, although I’ll happily toast Prohibition’s prohibition, that’s not what makes December 5th special. Nor is it because on December 5th, 1927, the first worldwide roller canary singing championship was held in Manitoba (although that is fascinatingly esoteric.) Actually the 5th of December is of vital importance because it is the day on which my wife Angela was born. And I would put myself at great risk if I were to forget this. As Robert Frost once wrote, “A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman's birthday but never remembers her age.” So, to keep healthy, I follow Frost’s advice as well as that of my brother, who often reminds me, “happy wife, happy life.”
Sadly, for many adults (my wife excluded) birthdays aren’t associated with happiness or wellness. Sure, “making” it to the next birthday can be a big event, especially if it is year 100, but too often birthdays herald unhealthy thoughts and behavior. In these cases, people agree with John Glenn that there is “still no cure for the common birthday.” In fact, studies show that the reality and awareness of one’s own mortality, (scientists call this “mortality salience”) may not only lead to the “birthday blues,” but also increase mortality risk. For example, a study of former major league baseball players, now dead, found they were more likely to die on their birthday than on any other day. Similarly, an investigation published in Neurology in 2006 reported that strokes and heart attacks are more common on birthdays. The researchers speculated that associated stress was to blame. Yet another study looked at suicides committed on one’s own date of birth – finding a slightly increased risk – especially among those over the age of 35.
Could the birthday blues be a self-fulfilling prophecy? One fulfilled like so: 1) someone is convinced something bad will happen on his birthday (for example, one might feel superstitious upon reaching the age at which one’s mother or father died); 2) a physiological stress response ensues; 3) blood pressure rises and arteries constrict, resulting in; 4) a vascular event (such as a heart attack); and 5) the birthday celebrant now actually is more likely to die. Or, in the worst-case scenario, someone might actuate the birthday stress in the extreme by taking her own life. Pretty depressing. Depressing enough to convince me that the American Adult Birthday needs an extreme health makeover.
Recognizing that birthdays will never again be like they were when we were kids – events giddily anticipated for months in advance – I think there is a way to make them less deadly for adults. So, in honor of my wife’s birthday (funny, I don’t seem to recall how old she’ll be this year), I’d like to propose that the birthday take a turn for the happy and healthy. Yes, you can still have the cake and an extra drink or two, but how about also making several birthday declarations? Let’s call these “candlelight promises.” Try stick to just a handful of them (save the rest for New Years) and your birthday can become a healthy turning point. Looking for ideas?
*Plan and execute one big trip or event each year – something that you have always wanted to do but haven’t gotten around to. The planning itself will keep you focused and give you something great to look forward to. As Lincoln wrote, “And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.” By choosing the life that excites us, we may actually stick around longer. 
*Pick up one new sport or hobby and give it a whirl. Doesn’t have to be anything extreme – taking up technical mountain climbing to celebrate your 90th may not be too wise – but what about painting, sculpture, or Yahtzee?
*Commit to one new healthy habit. You may like Lucille Ball’s suggestions; “The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.” Or you may prefer mine, which is to floss twice daily.
So there you go; hopefully this gives you something new for a day that may have lost its luster. And to my wife, I wish you a happy and healthy birthday.