Actually the fifth 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 (“mortality salience”) not only may lead to the “birthday blues” but also increase mortality risk.
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 35.
Could the birthday blues be a self-fulfilling prophecy? Take, for instance, someone convinced that something bad will happen on his 55th birthday because his father died at that age. A physiological stress response ensues, blood pressure rises and arteries constrict, resulting in a vascular event such as an AMI, and 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 months in advance — I think there is a way to make them less deadly for adults. So, in honor of birthdays, I'd like to propose that they take a turn for the happy and healthy. Yes, the birthday boy can still have the cake and an extra drink or two, but how about also making several birthday declarations? Or if you prefer cheesy monikers, let's call them “candlelight promises.”
Try to stick to just a handful of them (save the rest for New Year's), and perhaps one's birthday can become a healthy turning point. Here are some suggestions.
Plan and execute one big trip or event each year, something you have always wanted to do but haven't gotten around to. The planning itself will keep you focused and give you something 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. It 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 us something new for a day that may have lost its luster. And when Dec. 5 rolls around again, I will wish my wife a happy and healthy birthday.
Starting in February, Dr. Ballard, will be filing his perspective pieces from New Zealand. In his new and temporary role as a Kiwi health correspondent, Dr. Ballard will be working in the ED at Starship Children's Hospital in Auckland.
Dr. Ballard is an associate emergency physician at Kaiser-Permanente in San Rafael, CA, and the chair of the CREST ED Research Network. His writing credits include co-authorship with Angela Ballard of the award-winning travel narrative A Blistered Kind of Love: One Couple's Trial by Trail (Mountaineers Books, 2003) and authorship of The Bullet's Yaw (IUniverse, 2007). Dr. Ballard writes a biweekly-medical column for the Marin Independent Journal, which he posts on his blog: http://incisionanddrainage.blogspot.com.© 2012 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.