Saturday, 26 July 2008

Cone Theory and the Mystery Doctor

Barry Austin - heroic
I once got talking to a doctor on a train about health, nutrition and longevity and was fascinated to learn about something called ‘Cone Theory.’ Apparently, at any given time, a person’s physiology can be defined according to its current level of resource and the level to which the resource must drop for him or her to die. As we age, the current resource level slowly drops and the death threshold slowly rises, creating a graph of two slowly converging lines. When the lines join and you reach the tip of the cone, it’s curtains. Most people, he said, were not aware of the size of their gap at any given time.

Recently, after several years, I remembered the conversation and decided to look into Cone Theory for myself; but I was surprised to find that Google returned no hits for anything meaningful. If such a theory officially exists, it’s certainly not called ‘Cone Theory’. Maybe I just got the name wrong – or perhaps the man was not a doctor but a pathological liar. We are unlikely to find out unless he happens to read this blog and is gripped with a desire to come clean.

Thinking about it now it just seems like another way of saying that when you get unhealthy you die and that susceptibility for an individual varies with time and also varies between individuals. In other words, common sense.

Yet it got me thinking about something else that has bugged me for years – the fact that some people appear to have a totally different discomfort threshold from me.

Some years back my Dad had a friend he cycled with. His friend showed up each Saturday without fail, despite having invariably drunk half a litre of scotch the night before – and the night before that. In fact this guy was Jack Daniels’ best customer. Yet he was able to keep up with, and often out-perform my Dad, a pretty fit guy. We were astounded by his ability to function happily in this way in spite of his drinking habits.

Similarly, I have friends who in years gone by were able to drink for most of the night, get perhaps 3 hours sleep, go to a football match and then continue to drink for the rest of the day, perhaps rolling into bed in the early hours of the following morning. I’m pretty sure I could have done the same thing if you’d offered me enough money, but I would have hated it – my body would have been screaming at me in all kinds of ways, urging me to go home to bed. My friends were offered no such incentive and they loved every minute.

I can think of a few reasons for this apparent disparity.

My friends may simply have been built of sturdier stuff. There is a documentary that has aired on UK TV called ‘Inside Britain’s Fattest Man’, about a guy called Barry Austin. When the program was made, Barry had been eating and drinking to heroic excess for several years and achieved a weight of around 50 stone. The narrator asserts (with no real evidence I should say) that Barry was able to do this and remain in apparent good health because he had incredibly well lubricated intestines and an uncommonly strong liver. Needless to say, it was mentioned that even Barry’s top drawer organs would begin to feel the strain if he continued with his lifestyle. Clearly in Barry’s case, one of the reasons he was not currently feeling the strain was that he had a better body.

On the other hand, it could equally be that my friends were no sturdier, but simply had a different attitude to discomfort. As children they may have learned to associate the body’s signals about wear and tear with opportunities for enjoyment. The whole framework of their perception could have been skewed towards decreased sensitivity – or conversely mine towards increased sensitivity for some other reason.

Finally, I wonder whether as well as varying genetically in our robustness, we also vary in the strength of the signals our bodies send to our brains? Perhaps my friends were simply getting weaker signals from their bodies and therefore genuinely didn’t feel as bad as me even though they were in the same shape.

A word you hear a lot in this context is “constitution.” I once heard Rod Stewart being interviewed about his partying experiences with Elton John. On one occasion, says Rod, when Elton was at the peak of this cocaine use, they stayed up all night, drinking and doing, as Rod calls it ‘How’s your father’. Abruptly, at 8am Elton stood up and announced they would go and watch Watford play football. I can’t find the interview on YouTube, but I recall the phrase “He’s got an incredible constitution.”

The word ‘constitution’ seems to encapsulate the three explanations perfectly. However, my experience is people tend to assume it’s the first one that applies – in other words, they feel okay, therefore they are.

In my wanderings around the blogosphere I often call in on Arthur Devany’s blog. He likes to talk about the difference between the most you can do and the least you can do, saying that “When the two are equal, you are dead.” There is clearly resonance with the phantom Cone Theory here, and Devany’s arguments for this and other theories of longevity are compellingly made.

So in spite of the fact that I have apparently been hoodwinked by a pretend doctor with a pretend theory (I have been confidently telling people about Cone Theory for years) I find myself warming to its theme.

For me, the main takeaway is that no one can really be sure whether they are getting the full story from their brain. Rather like the president or prime minister, they only have their advisors’ word for how things are looking outside the office. Do I have a congenitally weak body and will therefore hit the peak of my cone at the same time as my hard-drinking friends in spite of all those nights I went home?

Or am I blessed with a set of uncommonly honest advisors, whose candour will ultimately add years to my life? Another roll of the dice, I guess.

See Also:
When it comes to Nutrition, the Glass is Half Empty
Roll the Dice


Asclepius said...

When you think about it we have developed all these inbuilt responses and reflexes to ensure our survival. So when we are thirsty we drink, when hungry we are compelled to eat, after exercise we experience fatigue and have to rest, if damaged we experience pain and various repair mechanisms kick off.

Clearly we can fool/override some of these reponses. We undertake ritualistic drinking - during a night on the beer. We fool our appetite with refined carbohydrate (it lacks satiety and allows us to eat ourselves in to immobility). We overtrain - ignoring a whole range of feedback prior to reaching that point.

It looks like we have evolved to be able to ignore this feedback. There would be an advantage in being able to this - a predator would not stop its pursuit just because you had twisted an ankle - you still need to be able to escape!

This draws us to an idea of how much we can override these reflexes. The fact that those with a poor lifestyle can drop dead from a heart attack in their 30s or that marathon runners can suffer the same fate through excessive activity, suggests that yes, we can all blunder on in ignorance of underlying bodily trauma.

The one saving grace is that some of us build in rest in to our lives. If we give ourselves 'breathing space' we get chance to rest, reflect and recover. In my experience this is something more common amongst athletes than those who enjoy their beer and fags!

Anonymous said...

I have what I would describe as a very sensitive constitution. I can feel the effects of only 2 pints of beer, in addition I suffer a hangover from the same amount. I can't drink tea beyond 6pm because the caffene keeps me awake at night. During my youth I partook in recreational drug use but could never handle anything like the amounts my friends considered a 'normal' amount to take. In fact one could say I was a lightweight! That said when it comes to food I don't share the same view, my thought is very much the case that your body takes what it needs to sustain itself and the rest is disposed of. It is OK to eat refined sugar, its OK to eat saturated fats, it's OK to pretty much eat anything that's edible, the key is to ensure we don't eat anything to excess. I have at various times in my life followed different regimes, vegetarianism for example or not drinking any alcohol for another, at other times I have eaten such huge amounts of cake, chocolate, pizza and junk food it would give our large friend from 'Inside Britains Fattest Man' a run for his money! Having said all that I can honestly say I never 'felt' any better or worse as a result of the food I ate, or didn't eat as the case may be. Any kind of drug or stimulant is a different ball game completely when it comes to how one feels. When it comes to food You're barking up the wrong tree here in my opinion.

Methuselah said...

Anon - your point certainly highlights the extent to which these things are viewed through the prism of our own experience. I am very sensitive to the effects of food. If I spend a couple of days eating crap, I feel pretty ropey. This could be because I have spent so many years eating a very healthy diet an am therefore accutely sensitive to the changes, or it could be for any of the reasons in my post. Likewise in your case I guess you could either be getting dodgy signals from your body or you could have the 'constitution' of an ox where food is concerned.

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