Aging Humor

A Guide to the Body for Occupants

If you are interested in learning more about your body (without taking a course in anatomy), then Bill Bryson’s book, “The Body,” is a nice place to begin. For most, our body is something we take for granted until we get sick or begin to experience the curious changes that happen as we move into a new stage of life. 

The book covers the major body systems as it follows discoveries and paradoxes encountered by medical pioneers as they unraveled the complex mysteries that makes us tick.  To keep the book engaging, a historical perspective is interwoven along with the anatomical and physiological explanations.  Stories about important discoveries that were dismissed in their time as not credible occur frequently and could leave the reader wondering how science ever progressed.  To his credit, Bryson sets the record straight by recognizing the doctors and researchers that should have been credited for their work. In some cases, even the Nobel prize was awarded to the wrong person.

Bryson also sets several myths to rest. For example, it’s commonly believed that we use only 10 percent of our brain.  In fact, we use it all – granted, not always efficiently. Bryson explains the likely source of each myth and the science behind the truth. In his typical style, Bryson doesn’t take anything for granted and provides ample citations for his claims.

While the book is genuinely engaging, some diagrams would help the reader better visualize the anatomical structures he describes.  Fortunately, the book is not intended to be a deep dive into the functioning of each body system.  Rather, the details are selective and highlight the more important points, while blending in a history of the discoveries.

The book takes a scientifically based approach.  In several places, the theory of evolution and the fossil records are used to explain the tradeoffs that made our anatomy so remarkable and yet so vulnerable.  If you have had back pain (who hasn’t?,) then you may appreciate that moving from all fours (like most primates) to standing up straight may reasonably be the result of an evolution in progress.  It would seem that, in so many ways, an intelligent designer could have done better.

As a physician that didn’t expect anatomy to be a subject I would need to revisit, Bryson convinced me that there is more for anyone that survived the traditional courses.  Best of all is the way his factual information and humorous snippets are weaved into a narrative that is thought-provoking and pleasurable.  For anyone contemplating a career in the medical field, the book might well be enough to clinch their interest.  If anatomy and the practice of medicine can be this interesting, what else would anyone want to do?

If you are familiar with Bryson’s previous books, you will find this one to have a similar conversational tone and cadence. Overall, the book is well researched and amazingly keeps complicated medical terminology to a minimum.  When medical terminology is used, adequate explanations are provided.  Best of all, it’s an entertaining read with no pop quiz at the end.  If only medical school could have been like that!  Be warned, it’s a hard book to put down. 

As a primary care doctor with a subspecialty in lifestyle medicine, I’d be remiss not to mention that Bryson frequently refers to a group of disorders he calls mismatch diseases – that is, diseases brought on by our modern lifestyles. As he explains, we are born with bodies of hunter-gatherers, and yet far too many pass their lives as “couch potatoes.” To be healthy, we need to eat and move about more like our ancient ancestors. That doesn’t mean we have to eat raw tubers and chase wildebeest. It does mean we need to consume a lot less processed foods, eat more plant-based foods, and get more exercise.

Should you have the itch to know more about yourself, check the book out from the public library.  Granted, it’s a book that’s likely to be in demand for a while. If placed on hold, it will eventually get to you.

Nancy Neighbors, MD

A Sample From the Book

  • An increase of only a degree or so in body temperature has been shown to slow the replication rate of viruses by a factor of 200 – an astonishing increase in self-defense from only a very modest rise in temperature.
  • The outermost surface of the skin is made up entirely of dead cells. It is an interesting thought that all that makes us lovely is deceased.
  • You have about 20,000 genes of your own, but perhaps as many as 20 million bacterial genes.  From that perspective, you’re roughly 99% bacterial and not quite 1% you.
  • According to one study, the least effective ways to spread germs is by kissing, to be really effective, you have to touch someone with your hands.
  • People with type O blood are more resistant to malaria and less resistant to cholera.
  • Only 2% of the human genome codes for proteins, which is to say only 2% does anything demonstrably and unequivocally practical. Quite what the rest is doing is mostly unknown. A lot of it, it seems, is just there, like freckles on the skin. Some of it makes no sense. One particular short sequence called an ALU element is repeated more than 1 million times throughout our genome, including sometimes in the middle of important protein coding genes
  • Nobody knows how many types of proteins there are within us, but estimates range from a few hundred thousand to a million or more. Some speed up chemical changes and are known as enzymes. Others convey chemical messages and are known as hormones. Still, others attack pathogens and are called antibodies. The largest of all our proteins is called titin, which helps control muscle elasticity
  • It has been estimated that each day between one and five of our cells turns cancerous. A healthy immune system then tracks them down, captures them, and kills them.  In a typical person, over 1000 times a year we get cancer, and each time our body saves us. Of course, very occasionally, cancer cells develops into something more serious.
  • “Shingles” as a medical condition comes from the Latin cingulus, meaning a kind of belt. Shingles, as a roofing material, comes from the Latin scindula, a stepped tile. It is only by chance that they ended up in English with the same spellings.
  • From the 1950s through the 1990s roughly three antibiotics were introduced into the US every year. Today it’s roughly one new antibiotic every other year. The rate of antibiotic withdrawals because they don’t work anymore or have become obsolete is twice the rate of new introductions. The obvious consequence of this is that the arsenal of drugs we have to treat bacterial infections has been going down. There’s no sign of it stopping.
  • In 1945, a typical case of pneumococcal pneumonia could be knocked out with 40,000 units of penicillin. Today, because of increased resistance, it can take more than 20 million units per day for many days to achieve the same result. For some diseases, penicillin now has no effect at all. In consequence, the death rate for infectious diseases has been climbing back to the level of about 40 years ago.
  • The pharmaceutical industry has retreated from trying to create new antibiotics. In the 1950s, for the equivalent of $1 billion in today’s money, a company could develop about 90 drugs. Today for the same money, a company can develop, on average, one-third of a drug.
  • Perhaps nothing is more unexpected about our brains than that they are much smaller today than they were 10,000 or 12,000 years ago, and by quite a lot. The average brain has shrunk from 1500 cm³ to about 1350 cm³ now. That’s equivalent to scooping out a portion of the brain about the size of a tennis ball.
  • The most universal expression of all is a smile, which is rather a nice thought. No society has ever been found that doesn’t respond to smiles in the same way. A true smile is brief (between two-thirds of a second and four seconds.) That is why a held smile begins to look faked or menacing. A true smile is the one expression that we cannot fake.
  • Humans have evolved to have just three kinds of color receptors compared with four for fish, birds, and reptiles. It’s a humbling fact – visually, many non-mamilian creatures live in a vividly richer world than we do.
  • The food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) has an undeserved bad reputation. MSG has been subjected to the most thorough scrutiny of all time, and no scientist has ever found any reason to condemn it, yet its reputation in the West as a source of headaches and low-grade malaise now appears to be undimmed and permanent.
  • Remarkably, even with all the improvements in care, you are 70% more likely to die from heart disease today than you were in 1900. That’s partly because 100 years ago people didn’t spend five or six hours in front of the television with a big spoon and a tub of ice cream.
  • For many, their existence is the process of eating maximally and exercising minimally. In the face of this headwind, it’s amazing that we survive for as long as we do. Fortunately, suicide by lifestyle takes quite a while.


            No book is perfect but this one came pretty close.

            The pylorus is where food exits the stomach, not where it enters (page 249).

            Collapse therapy, an old-fashioned treatment for tuberculosis to which he briefly alludes, was probably quite a bit more effective than Bryson gives it credit for (page 328).

The Dangers of Self Diagnosis

Jerome K. Jerome

Upon reading a medical textbook.

            “I came to typhoid fever – read the symptoms – discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it – wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus’s Dance – found as I expected, that I had that too, – began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically – read up ague, and learnt that I was sickened for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright’s disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned I might live for years.”

Bullet Journal and Planner Club

            Are your New Year’s resolutions losing traction?  Perhaps spending an hour planning the week ahead and getting ideas from others who have planners or bullet journals will help you kickstart your plans. All planner types and journalers are invited!

Sunday, February 9th – 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

Madison Public Library – Auditorium 2

Recipes for the Week

(Compliments of Forks Over Knives)

8-Ingredient Slow Cooker Chili

Herbed Instant Pot Rice Pilaf

Slow Cooker Chana Masala

Brussels Sprouts with Maple-Mustard Sauce

Creamy Vegan Potato-Leek Soup

Plant-Based Living Potluck

            The next potluck meeting of the Plant-Based Living & Discussion Group will happen…

Saturday, Feb. 8th, 5:30 pm

Unitarian Universalist Church of Huntsville

3921 Broadmor Road — Huntsville

            Enjoy the camaraderie of others seeking a healthier lifestyle and enjoy the movie ‘Forks Over Knives,’ an inspiring movie even if you have seen it 5 times or never!

            Bring a plant-based dish to share. Plates, cups, utensils, and water will be provided.  For additional information email

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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