Down to the Bone

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

It was strange to realize one winter that I’d gone through an invisible and unconscious transformation: I’d become supremely careful on ice. As I walked up the hill to get the mail and came back down I found myself widening my stance, stretching out my arms and significantly reducing the distance between my bum and the ground. I looked like a person trying to be a pancake, creating as much flat surface area as possible. Why did I suddenly feel so vulnerable , I wondered? I had no idea what had come over me; I must have just literally felt it in my bones.
I wasn’t wrong. As we age, we lose bone mass whether we can feel it or not. It typically starts happening around age 40, picking up speed when hormone levels drop, estrogen in women, testosterone in men. Men fare better than women do with one in 17 men aged 65 and older having the weak and brittle bones of osteoporosis compared to one in three women.
Interesting fact: our bodies are constantly making new and reabsorbing old bone in a process called remodeling. (Osteoporosis happens when bone is absorbed faster than we’re making it.) Our entire skeleton is entirely re-built in this way about every 10 years.
When I think about bone loss, two things stand out:
  1. How losing bone mass is like melting, which makes becoming a puddle seem possible.
  2. How the older we get, the more disastrous it is to break a bone, so often the turning point in an elderly person’s ultimate decline. It’s not entirely understood why.
There are really good ways to stave off the loss of bone: we can limit alcohol; quit smoking; drink more water (bones are 30% water), eat food that contains a wide variety of nutrients including calcium and vitamin D; and get regular weight bearing exercise to stimulate bone growth.
There are ways to keep our bones about us but the interesting question for you and me both is this: will we do anything? Equipped with this knowledge, will we change any of our ways? Have I even convinced myself to do a little more than I currently am? Or have I just succeeded in making us all a little more tired?
Changing our ways
What I know about myself, and other people is that we make changes when something happens, when some piece of information finally clicks, when something inspires us or when our back is to the wall. Maybe this is the click point for you; maybe it’s not. And until then we wait.
But hey, while we’re waiting for something to happen, no reason we can’t be a little more bone aware… jump around a little bit, test our balance, drink a glass of water. Maybe get some sun on our face. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, but even small tweaks can give our bodies the best chance to stay strong and healthy. We are in a relationship with our bones, after all, as Jane Hirshfield observes in the poem below, it holding us; us holding it.
Off to another brave, new day,
My Skeleton
My skeleton,
you who once ached
with your own growing larger

are now,
each year
imperceptibly smaller,
absorbed by your own

When I danced,
you danced.
When you broke,

And so it was lying down,
climbing the tiring stairs.
Your jaws. My bread.

Someday you,
what is left of you,
will be flensed of this marriage.

Angular wristbone's arthritis,
cracked harp of ribcage,
blunt of heel,
opened bowl of the skull,
twin platters of pelvis—
each of you will leave me behind,
at last serene.

What did I know of your days,
your nights,
I who held you all my life
inside my hands
and thought they were empty?

You who held me all my life
inside your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.
  • Jane Hershfield