Hammertoes

This week I learned I have “hammertoes” on my left foot and that I’m going to need surgery to fix the problem. It was not a highlight of the week, obviously.

“Hammertoes” is an embarrassing name for an affliction. Even worse, the name always make me think of the “Hammer time” passage in M.C. Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This. It refers to a condition in which the muscle, ligament, and joint of a toe become imbalanced, causing the middle joint to bend permanently. In my case, the second toe of my left foot has not only become arched, but has twisted and is overlapping with its neighbor, my big toe. This makes wearing shoes a painful exercise. Even worse, the next two toes also have begun to curl over, and their twisting and torquing adds to the discomfort.

The result is a left foot in which only the big toe and little toe are normal, and the middle three look like gnarled, freakish deviltoes that need an exorcist. If I were barefoot on a beach in this condition, mothers would grab their young children and flee. It’s weird, too, to see the toes on a x-ray, where the skeleton beneath the skin is exposed in all of its monstrous deformity.

Hammertoes can be caused by a number of things. In my case, the doctor says it’s genetic rather than being caused by wearing shoes that are too tight. I don’t know of anyone in my family, extending back several generations, who had this problem, but I’ll accept the diagnosis because it means I’m not personally to blame. It also means I’m going to need to keep a close eye on my right foot, to see whether I can detect the telltale signs of new toe betrayal.

As health problems go, hammertoes is small stuff. I’ll have outpatient surgery in which the muscle, ligament and joint are restored to their proper alignment, pins will be inserted into the rebellious toes to keep them in line, and I’ll have to gimp around on crutches and later in a walking boot. I won’t be able to take my customary morning walk for months. Instead, I’ll be sitting in a chair, with visions of M.C. Hammer in his funky pants dancing in my head.

The Genetic Snare

Recently a friend survived a heart attack.  He didn’t smoke, kept his weight down, ate the right things, and got exercise.  But his father had had a heart attack, and when my friend reached his mid-50s, so did he.

When something like that happens to a person you know, it shakes you.  You think about your own family medical history and wonder how many of those health problems were due to lifestyle and how many to awesome genetic forces lurking deep within our cells, like tiny time bombs that could explode with devastating consequences at any moment, irrespective of how much lettuce you eat?  Did my father, uncle, and grandfather die of cancer because they were heavy smokers, or because of some squamous anomaly in their mitochondria that was triggered by strands of DNA without regard to intake of tar and nicotine?

And, probing even deeper into the levels of introspection, what would you prefer the answers to these questions to be?  Are you a fatalist who is more comfortable thinking you’ve already been dealt all the cards and just have to play the hand as well as you can?  If you could take a test and determine, conclusively, that the raging fires of cancer were going to consume your body no matter what you did, would you want to know so you could adjust your lifestyle accordingly and move down the spectrum to enjoy the delightful but unhealthy things you’ve avoided?  Or would you rather hope that your good behavior and healthy lifestyle could win you a reprieve from the otherwise inevitable genetic snare?

I’m in the latter category.  I’d like to think that my decisions make a difference to the equation and might have an impact on whether I keel over in the near future.  My friend’s situation makes me think, however:  “Am I just kidding myself?”

Unlocking The Aging Secrets Of Lazarus Long

What makes some people so long-lived?  In the classic science fiction story Methuselah’s Children, Robert A. Heinlein postulated that extreme longevity could be achieved by genetics.  Encourage long-lived families to mate with each other, and in a few generations you would produce the ageless Lazarus Long, who lived well past the age of 200.

Now researchers, too, are looking at the genetics of longevity.  Recently maps of the genomes of two 114-year-olds — 114 years! — were published, and scientists are examining the data, trying to figure out what has made the two so amazingly long-lived.  So far, the answer is:  who knows?  The supercentenarians don’t seem to have different genetic structures, or genes that perform different functions.  Yet, somehow, they have lived far longer than the average person.

Obviously, there is an environmental component of extreme age.  If you live in a war zone, or a disease-ridden area, you are less likely to live a long life. As time passes, however, genetics plays an increasingly significant role.  The super-old don’t experience dementia.  They don’t have problems with cardiovascular disease, or Parkinson’s disease.  They’ve managed to avoid other diseases and conditions that routinely fell individuals who make it past 80, too.  But what is it that they have that others don’t?

Figuring out whether there is a genetic key that allows people to live longer is likely to be a focus of medical research in the future.  If drug companies will spend billions developing allergy medication and sexual performance drugs, what would they spend to discover a drug that approximates the effect of special genetic conditions of supercentenarians and allows humans with “average” genes to live super-long lives?

In the meantime, the rest of us will just hope that we inherited the genetic secrets of our most long-lived ancestor.