I was speaking with a friend who works in elder care the other day, and got several surprises about the progression of life and death.
I was relating the story of a woman I had written about last year and how she died in an institution with her body pumped full of drugs. My friend said that while drugs are administered at times to alleviate pain there are many times when the elderly are approaching death but neither need nor want pain-killing medication.
She said that loss of appetite is an early sign that the body is beginning to shut down but where a younger and healthier person would soon feel hunger pangs and literally be forced to eat, an elderly person who is nearing death might not feel pain at all.
In fact, she said, first-time care givers often attempt to convince their relative to eat more and drink more as a first response to decreased appetite, which is not only unnecessary, but could be counterproductive.
Since the body is shutting down its needs are far less than normal and food requirements are far lower, she said. But the body produces natural endorphins she said, that block the pain that otherwise might be felt from hunger.
In the case of a person who is nearing death the body produces higher doses of endorphins so pain such as hunger may not be felt at all.
Before I go any further endorphins are defined by Webster’s dictionary as “any of a group of endogenous peptides (as enkephalin and dynorphin) found especially in the brain that bind chiefly to opiate receptors and produce some of the same pharmacological effects (as pain relief) as those of opiates …”
Endorphins are further defined as consisting of two root words: endo- and –orphin which stem from endogenous and morphine, meaning a morphine-like substance originating inside the body.
In other words, endorphis are natural pain killers.
I wasn’t unfamiliar with endorphins as I spent much of my life as a weight lifter and personal trainer. Endorphins are often referred to in the fitness world as natural blocks between the discomfort of exercise and the desire to attain fitness goals.
Long distance runners are familiar with endorphins which many believe kick in usually after a few miles. Speculation is that the human species survived because endorphins allowed them to run at high speeds over great distances presumably to avoid being captured and eaten by Saber Toothed Tigers or other predators or that time.
There are some researchers who disagree with that hypothesis and say that runner’s high comes from completing the challenge not from being involved in it.
I tend to disagree with that concept though because in year’s past when I ran long distances as part of my fitness regimen, the runner’s high kicked in somewhere around the fourth mile. I was never a marathon runner and topped out at 7-mile runs, so I could hardly say that the challenge was over when the good feelings began.
There also is considerable research on endorphins and the role they play in relaxation, mental disorders, acupuncture and even pregnancy.
It is interesting to say the least that much of the debate on endorphins centers on whether specific activities release endorphins and to what degree, yet with the elderly it isn’t activity that can release them but inactivity.
Obviously as our population ages many people who now concern themselves with exercise induced endorphin levels will begin to take an interest in endorphin levels that occur when they aren’t exercising. Who knows what secrets may be unlocked in the functioning of the human body by an aging generation that many have criticized for being too self-absorbed.