Thanks to progress in medical technology, Americans are routinely living past their 70s and staying active while they're at it. This presents a new challenge: how to repair the wear and tear on bodies that weren't meant to stand up to decades of pummeling by tennis serves and triathlons. The answer, often, is replacement parts made of alloys or ceramics or high-tech plastics, prosthetic devices that have become increasingly advanced in the past decade. The latest models last longer, are easier to install, and cut down on recovery time. For a generation that refuses to retire, these high-tech joints and valves are becoming more common — and more necessary.
Diane Lancaster, a cancer survivor and grandmother of eight, had always suffered from a bit of knee pain. Ever since her twenties there had been a twinge, but the arthritis had gotten worse as she passed through her fifties. The pain forced her to give up her hobbies. First she stopped running. Then she stopped going to yoga. All the sitting around caused her to gain weight. But she muddled through the intensifying ache of daily living, popping Aleve to get through her afternoons.
"I work in accounting, so I was lucky," she says. "I could sit at a desk for eight hours and not have to stand."
Lancaster is also a roller coaster enthusiast, and the turning point for her came during a family vacation to Disney World. She couldn't walk far enough, so for the first time in her life she found herself getting pushed around in a wheelchair. Her grandsons took turns carting her to her favorite ride, Space Mountain.
"They actually liked doing that," Lancaster chuckles. But she was frustrated that she couldn't take care of herself. Was this what the rest of her life would look like? "When I got back I knew it was time to get the surgery because I didn't want to go through that again."
It turned out that most of her knee was healthy. Lancaster only needed a partial replacement, a procedure that preserves most of the knee. The region chewed up by arthritis is replaced with a cobalt chromium alloy knob that glides against a cushioning plate meant to mimic cartilage. But the rest of the knee, and all the original tendons and ligaments, remain. The surgery is a little trickier, but the recovery is briefer and patients find the result feels more natural. By the same afternoon Lancaster was already home doing her prescribed physical therapy exercises.
These days, Lancaster is back in the yoga studio. She is astonished to have full, pain-free range of motion in her knee again, something she has not enjoyed for decades. Lancaster said she was thinking about returning to the track soon, though perhaps not the 2-3 miles a day that was her old routine. Not yet, at least.
At 21, Lester Tenney was a tank officer in the Pacific Theater. He fought the Japanese in the Philippines before being taken as a prisoner of war in 1942. It was the largest American surrender in history. At bayonet-point, Tenney and 78,000 other U.S. and Filipino soldiers were forced on an 85-mile trek inland that became known as the Bataan Death March.
"If you fell down, you died," Tenney once said of his experiences. "If you stopped walking, you died."
Seventy years later, Tenney has accumulated several more lives. After being liberated from his coal mine labor camp at the end of the war, he finished college, and worked in insurance. In his early 50s, he went back to school and got his PhD in finance, becoming a professor at Arizona State University. He wrote a book about his time spent as a prisoner of war, My Hitch in Hell, and now spends his retirement lecturing about World War II and lobbying on behalf of veterans. His cause is recognition and apology for all the suffering experienced by prisoners of war of the Japanese.
It was in 2009 that Tenney hit on a major victory. The Japanese government agreed to bring back a small group of former prisoners of war for an official apology and tour of the country. The only problem: His heart was giving out.
Tenney was having chest pain and couldn’t catch his breath. A major valve in his heart had started to narrow and harden, which often happens to older patients. Tenney was 90, and had already had triple bypass surgery twenty years prior. He needed a new valve but doctors didn’t think he could survive another open-heart operation.
But a new valve replacement had just entered the testing phase. This was collapsible and fit inside a catheter that could be snaked up an artery in the thigh or through a small cut in the side of the chest. Tenney went in for transcatheter valve replacement in the spring of 2010, and was discharged several days later.
That fall, he led a group of six veterans on a lavish trip to Japan sponsored by the Japanese government. They met with the parliament; broke bread with Ambassador Roos, American ambassador to Japan; and, most importantly, received an apology from Japan’s foreign minister.
Slowly, the world had been going dark for Gloria Mathney. Even though she lives among the bright lights of the Vegas strip, she couldn't see the glow. She had trouble recognizing faces, or even signs on the street. She read the paper with a magnifying glass because everything was too blurry, even at a nose's distance. Driving was becoming a hazard. She had trouble seeing the white lines on the street. "I don't even know how I made it home sometimes," she says. "It was like letting the car drive itself."
Mathney, who is 77, had cataracts, which are a common symptom of aging. Sunlight, environmental toxins and changing body chemistry degrade the clear lens that sits in front of every eye. A cloudy patch starts to form. By the time they are 65, a quarter of Americans have developed symptoms. By 75, the prevalence is at more than half. Glasses and contact lenses, which shape how light gets to the eye, can't fix the problem. Squinting doesn’t make it better either. The cataracts are a dense fog that blurs any kind of light at all.
With blindness on the horizon, Mathney needed surgery to replace the cloudy lenses in her eyes with plastic prosthetics. In the past, this involved days in the hospital and weeks spent recuperating. But these days, cataract operations are routine, painless procedures. To access the lens, which sits inside a pouch in the eye, surgeons use a tiny incision the width of two stacked dimes. In goes a vibrating probe that liquefies and vacuums out the cloudy lens. Then, like putting a ship in a bottle, the surgeons slip in a folded-up plastic lens that unfurls to full size inside the eye.
Mathney went home that day with just some puffiness. A day later she began to see clearly again — truly clearly. She barely recognized her surrounding. "I had been thinking I needed to buy a new TV it was so dim," Mathney says. "But it wasn't the TV that was broken." Visiting her friends at the casino, she marveled at how shiny the new slot machines were. "Turns out they were the same ones that had always been there," Mathney says. "I was just seeing them for the first time."