2265 North Clybourn Avenue    Chicago, IL 60614    P: 773.296.6700     F: 773.296.1131

You, the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay

Back in the 19th century, the physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote the cheerful poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece or The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay.” The poem tells of a deacon who wanted to build a perfect shay, a popular two-wheeled carriage drawn by a horse, one that would last 100 years. He did so, using the finest materials and craftsmanship.

And indeed his shay did endure a full century and then–literally to the day–it fell apart, virtually all at once. There was no single problem at the end of the shay’s 100 years; it just sort of dissolved into itself.

“Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,
That was built in such a logical way
It ran a hundred years to a day,
And then of a sudden it — ah, but stay,
I’ll tell you what happened without delay…”

Ideally, each of us has the potential to start life a lot like the deacon’s masterpiece shay, functioning smoothly with just a few glitches along life’s road, rolling on with the years in good health until finally, in our 80s, 90s, or 100s, our bodies give out. To have lived a life like this–being born, maturing to adulthood, growing old, and then without a multiplicity of chronic illnesses dying at an advanced age–is more prosaically called “the rectangularization of a lifespan.”  To see what’s meant by that, look at the graph below.

  • The light blue line shows people in the 19th century, developing chronic illnesses in their 40s with many people dying off by their 60s and 70s.
  • The red line, late 20th century, shows that things are better. We’ve reduced childhood deaths, are postponing the development of chronic illnesses (heart and lung problems, diabetes, cancer), and living longer.
  • The dotted line completing the rectangle shows how we might “rectangularize” our survival curve. And then, after many years of good health (like the one-hoss shay) life is over. On some distant day, tucked into a warm bed and surrounded by an assortment of concerned faces that vaguely resemble our own, we’ll die.

Famous people who rectangularized their lives: comedian George Burns, working until he reached 100 and dying a few weeks later; playwright George Bernard Shaw (94); composer Irving Berlin (101); and, with luck, some of your relatives.

Preventing late-life chronic illness is the best way to rectangularize our survival curve, and everyone reading this knows the basic rules: maintain a healthful weight, eat a real-food diet, avoid tobacco, keep active. And now, as reported in last week’s Archives of Internal Medicine, comes a key factor in preventing late-life chronic illness, a state of being called “mid-life fitness.”

This Archives report is quite an accomplishment of data collection
Starting in 1970 and ending in 2009, the Cooper Center for Longitudinal Study at the Cooper Institute in Dallas tracked a total of 18,670 people, monitoring their level of fitness (defined by physical activity, treadmill abilities, etc) and their development of chronic illnesses. They were able to follow this group closely because all ultimately entered Medicare and thus the researchers could determine exactly who had developed what based on claims, physician records, and patient self-reporting.

The illnesses they looked for were heart disease, stroke, chronic lung disease, and diabetes–the four life-shortening illnesses most preventable by lifestyle changes.

And the results were what everyone would hope for. Being fit in your 40s places you at a dramatic advantage as you age. Your likelihood of developing one of the big-four chronic illnesses is less than half that of the rest of the population. In this study, the fit rectangularized their survival curve and either were still alive and doing very nicely (“thriving of the fittest”) or had lived nice long lives and one day just died.

Your best bet for thriving is to start now. The money you’re hoarding for that new flat screen TV?  Use it instead to purchase nutritious foods, join a health club, buy an elliptical, or hire a personal trainer and you, the masterpiece one-hoss shay, can continue to…

Be well,

David Edelberg, MD



Leave a Comment

  1. Jill says:

    Ah, George Burns– the famous centenarian with the ever-present cigar in his mouth. 😉

  2. Addie says:

    And don’t forget MEANING. If your life’s meaning is your children, you may face aging’s worst existential crisis: “I raised my children so why am I here now?” I just returned from New England, where I visited a beloved cousin who will be 89 next month. She’s a clinical psychologist who sees patients three times a week. Another three times a week she swims laps. Her children are grown and live far away; her husband died 20 years ago. When she was in her early 60s she decided to become a clinical psychologist because it was a job she’d love that she could do as an old woman. At that time she held a doctorate in sociology and was running a program she’d created for foreign students’ wives at a major university. She hired a tutor, studied like mad, and passed the exam for licensing as a clinical psychologist. She began her practice with referrals from the University’s medical department shortly after. The point is always to have a future. Your life ends when your concept of your future ends.

  3. Judith Allison says:

    Thank you for this. My Mom recently passed away at age 94. After living a health conscious and relatively healthy life, she was diagnosed with lung cancer and died about 30 days later. That last month was very painful for her, but it is comforting to know, that in the grand scheme of things, she won the game! And how fortunate her family was to have our very own “one-hoss shay.”

  4. linda wolf says:

    Our dad just passed at 97. He lived the rectangle. Playing bridge, driving and going to the health club until the day before his stroke. Passed at home with his three kids in the room. Things got confusing when we were asked who his doctor was. He didn’t have one.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, delicious and time-saving recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!


Health Tips

Dr. Edelberg’s Health Tips contain concise bits of advice, medical news, nutritional supplement and pharmaceutical updates, and stress relief ideas. With every Health Tip, you’ll also receive an easy, delicious, and healthful recipe.

When you sign up to receive Health Tips, you can look forward to Dr. Edelberg’s smart and very current observations arriving in your in-box weekly. They’re packed with helpful information and are often slightly irreverent. One of the most common responses to the tips is “I wish my doctor talked to me like this!”

Quick Connect

Get One Click Access to our


The Knowledge Base

Patient education is an integral part of our practice. Here you will find a comprehensive collection of staff articles, descriptions of therapies and nutritional supplements, information addressing your health concerns, and the latest research on nutritional supplements and alternative therapies.

Join our Newsletter

Get health recommendations, recipes, medical news, supplement reviews, birthday discounts, and more!

Upcoming Workshops

**Pain Relief with Myofascial Balls
Tuesday, October 29, 6-8pm
With Renee Zambo, C-IAYT Yoga Therapist

Course Fee: $65.00
(includes WholeHealth Chicago Myofascial Release Kit, $40 value)

Does that same spot in your neck, shoulders, back or hips seem to bother you every day? Do you have joint aches and pains in the hands and feet? Would you like to learn ways to alleviate that pain and tension?

Join WholeHealth Chicago’s Yoga and Movement Therapist Renee Zambo for an evening of muscle tension release with myofascial therapy balls.

Space is limited and registration is required.
Please register online.
Call the Center for additional information at (773) 296-6700

Recent Health Tips

  • Dandruff, Fungi, and Cancer of the Pancreas

    It’s an eye-catching title, I’ll admit. But the links are quite real and further research may guide medicine in new directions of cancer prevention and treatment. It all starts in your gut microbiome, the totality of microorganisms–bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi–present in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, mouth to anus. Until recently, researchers and clinical physicians alike paid virtually no attention to the microbiome and the Read More

  • New Hope For Sinus Sufferers

    When osteopath Dr. Rob Ivker moved to Colorado in the 1980s to set up his family practice, he had no idea that when he stepped off the plane he’d succumb to symptoms of chronic sinusitis that just wouldn’t go away: stuffy nose, thick mucus, pressure behind his cheekbones and above his eyebrows, dull aching headache, and thick goopy drainage in the back of his throat. Read More

  • Director of IV Therapies Katie McManigal, BSN, ANP

    Most people at some point in their lives have had an intravenous (IV) line. An adept nurse warned you about the tiny pinch of the needle as it was smoothly inserted and taped in place.  Then the  fluid dangling above your head slowly started making its way through a tube and into your body. IVs are all over the place in hospitals. They’re seen in Read More

October Sale – Save 20% off UltraMeal Rice

UltraMeal RICE is a tasty, non-dairy, nutritionally fortified, powdered meal replacement for those who want to support healthy body composition but may be sensitive to soy.

Click here to take advantage of this month’s promotion!