My cousin-in-law sends birthday greetings to his female relatives telling us we’re “aging backwards.” I’ve always thought it was a cute sentiment, but realized on a recent hike that it might actually be true for me. Thanks to the miracles of modern science and a strong stubborn streak in my family history, my aging future looks more active and agile than my middle age past.
My physical abilities were defined by a heart arrhythmia for over 30 years. Diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib) at the age of 24 without any then-recognizable symptoms (everyone gets out of breath running or doing aerobics, right?!), my cardio strength deteriorated with every passing year. In my late twenties I started being the “sweep” on every hike, intentionally at the back, so I could go at my own pace. Companions who didn’t understand would keep me company at the back and engage me in conversation — not helpful, as talking used up what little breath I had. As an introvert, I didn’t really mind trailing ever further behind the others, although they were always ready to move on just as I arrived at the rest stop. As the years went on, my walking partners couldn’t ignore my difficulty with uphills, and I got a little smarter. I moved to being the listener on every uphill hike or walk around the neighborhood — at the beginning of every hill, I’d ask my walking partner a question that required a looong answer.
Looking back, I know that only my unwillingness to accept defeat kept me going — no way I was going to let the f*@#ing AFib get the better of me, or keep me from the outdoors that I love.
Finally, in 2009 at the age of 55, I made my way up the Salkantay Pass in Peru one switchback at a time — only looking ahead to the next turn, and stopping there to wait for my heart to get back out of “overdrive” and for the oxygen-seeking wheezing to stop. I knew that my hiking and uphill days were over absent some kind of miracle. I spent the long descent from the pass mourning. What I would do on future vacations while the rest of my family continued their high-aerobic-intensity activities?
When first diagnosed, I was told there was nothing that could be done to help beyond trying to slow the heart rate down. As time went on, the medications became more sophisticated, and the cardiologists a little more inclined to support my passion for hiking. But going uphill (or up stairs) was never easy. About ten years before the Salkantay Pass adventure, a surgical fix for AFib was discovered in which they intentionally scar areas of the heart to redirect the erring electrical signals (to stop the fibrillation). These cardiac ablations were quite common by 2009, and no longer required open heart surgery, but all cardiologists I’d met with (and there were many) unequivocally told me that it would not work, because I’d been in AFib for so long. So, standing at Salkantay Pass, the options seemed non-existent.
Upon my return from Peru, I was determined to find out, once and for all, whether this was “as good as it gets.” Extensive research brought me to a cardiologist right in my own back yard who based his risk assessment for the success of an ablation on evidence (a cardiac MRI), not on the assumption that 30+ years of 24/7 AFib was a guaranteed barrier to success. Imagine that, making medical decisions based on evidence, rather than assumptions?! In my first meeting with him, he embraced possibility and framed the entire conversation around whether we can “fix you." If he hadn’t been so intimidating, I would have hugged the man.
I felt hope for the first time in over thirty years.
Long story short, he gave me a 75-80% chance of success based on the cardiac MRI results, I had the ablation in November 2009, and I have been virtually AFib-free for the past eight years. During the first check-up post-ablation, I wouldn’t allow them to turn off the sound on the EKG. I just wanted to hear that steady thwoomp-thwoomp-thwoomp sinus rhythm heartbeat forever! To this day I still check my pulse often, just to confirm that my heartbeat is still in steady rhythm. And then I smile.
My aerobic capacity and stamina have been steadily improving since November 2009. I’ll never win any speed records, and I still have to stop at a switchback turn now and then to catch my breath when it’s really steep, but I no longer consider my heart an obstacle to my physical aspirations. Our family vacations continue to include a lot of hiking, with no skimping on the uphills. We celebrated my husband’s 60th birthday by climbing Kilimanjaro (I made it to base camp at 15,520’); the rest of the family summited. We just got back from six weeks in New Zealand, which included a lot of day hikes, and the 4-day 27-mile Tongariro Northern Circuit hike, with a 2,300’ climb on the Devil’s Staircase on Day 2. And I’m training for a half marathon in May, which I hope to walk in close to 3 hours.
When I semi-retired the first time (2 years post-ablation), my boss commented a little enviously that where most people our age were able to do less and less each year, I was able to do more and more, thanks to the surgery. Now that I’ve retired the second (and probably the final) time, I’m taking every opportunity to hike, swim, joggle (that’s a little faster than walking), and will even face my fears this spring by getting back on a bicycle. Because I can.
Having read my story, I now have a challenge for you, yes you, the reader. This situation could apparently be true for all of us, without having to go through 30 years of limited heart capacity. There are more and more scientific studies that suggest that this “aging backward” phenomenon does not need to be unique to situations like mine. Not only is it possible to increase heart strength and aerobic capacity well into our dotage, exercise may also help to stave off dementia and other debilitating illnesses. So, informed by science and a little stubbornness, what can you do to bring more movement into your life?
I hope to continue aging backwards for many more years. Like the Young at Heart chorus (age range 73 to 92 years old), I’m choosing “Forever Young” as my theme song.
Michele Straube recently retired after 35+ years dealing with difficult people as an environmental attorney and mediator, most recently running the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. She has lived in Salt Lake City with her ultra-marathon runner husband Bob for 25 years. Their son Woody is a musician with the heavy metal band Xoth in Seattle. Their daughter Sierra is about halfway through a science communication graduate program in New Zealand. Retirement is filling up quickly with heart-healthy activities: exploring trails here and abroad, making change one person at a time (e.g., teaching English as a Second Language, serving as an A-Fib patient advocate), and quality time spent with friends.