Health Redundancy


Why are so many old buildings sturdier than modern ones? When an architect cannot calculate the load precisely, they strive to include redundancy in the design, making the walls and slabs thicker and more reliable. This redundancy leads to longevity.

When I taught histology (the science of tissue and cell structure or “anatomy under a microscope”, if you wish), I often demonstrated to my students the existing “redundancy” of practically every organ and cell. Indeed, we have a number of nerve, muscle, and connective tissue cells that exceed the necessary minimum several times over. If needed, a human being can live with one lung, with only half of their intestines and liver, with one kidney, and even with a defect in a significant part of their brain. The redundancy principle is linked to the existence of more elements than what are needed for functioning, as well as the redundancy of channels for the supply of information, and its excessive volume.

All living beings, including their separate organs, tissues and even cells develop with an enormous reserve of durability. A human femur can survive a load of 1.5 tonnes, which exceeds the normal load almost thirty times over. Our lungs can carry thrice the amount of oxygen that we need even for the most intensive physical efforts.

Should we economize? Now that we are used to saving on capital investments, why shouldn’t we get rid of a kidney or half of a lung if doing so won’t hinder our daily activities? However, this redundancy is vital for survival. After all, this reserve helps us to adapt to and survive challenging situations. The bigger our “health reserve” is, the bigger the load we can bear, and the slower we will age during function decline. The higher we get, the longer we fall.

That’s why it is so important to understand your resources. We may have no signs of disease manifesting, but if our health resources are on the decline, even a slight influence can lead to functional disorders. True health is the confirmation of our health resources. When people lead an unhealthy lifestyle, they borrow from their own health reserves, which increases the risk of feeling unwell. Rephrasing the words of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “An overabundance of health is the only proof of health”.

Overabundance and the risk of disease. We’ve already established that low health resources predispose us to disease, while plentiful resources ensure good levels of vitality and attractiveness. When health resources decrease, the spontaneity and variability of our main systems’ regulations weaken. Everything becomes identical, stereotypical, and repetitive. This applies to lower variability in heartbeat rhythm, as well as vocabulary impoverishment, shorter step length and lowered spontaneous physical activity, the impoverishment of movement patterns, emotional simplicity and many other changes. They serve as signs of health decline even in a formally healthy person.

Resources aren’t inert. We can mobilize our redundant capabilities in the form of high working performance, emotional stability, attention, strength, and intelligence. That’s why high health resources manifest as our everyday wellbeing and abilities. We don’t need our health to be normal — we need it to be redundant. People with well-developed muscle mass aren’t just stronger, but also healthier, since muscles absorb excessive blood glucose and fat and protect from cardiovascular diseases, prolonging youth. Athletes have a much lower risk of osteoporosis, since by the time they begin to age and lose bone density, their bones have more weight.

Cognitive reserve. 30 years ago, scientists who were studying the brain found that some people after death had a noticeable plaque accumulation and other signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but also that these patients had no signs of this illness manifesting during their lives. Why? Turns out, their brains had slightly higher weights and had more neurons and synaptic connections than average for people of their age group. In this way, their bigger brains protected them, compensating for their already existing neurodegenerative disease. Scientists called this phenomenon “cognitive reserve”.

When we study, make an intellectual effort, or learn something new, including mastering unusual movement patterns, neuroplasticity stimulation occurs on all levels: synaptic plasticity, neuron remodeling, neurogenesis — yes-yes, new neurons develop in adult people too. The more new appendages and connections are accumulated, the larger the reserve becomes. Macroscopically, it manifests as an increase in folds on the cerebral cortex. Jokes about convolutions are truthful; indeed, the correlation between the number and depth of these convolutions and intellect and cognitive flexibility exists. At the same time, head traumas and overindulging in alcohol can actually “smoothen” these convolutions.

As we already know, the brain is flexible, and new neural connections which, for example, were acquired during language learning, can easily be used for other tasks. During times of illness, they can take on the functions of damaged structures, compensating for the harm done by the disease.

The main thing is staying young at heart! The more you learn, make conscious efforts, and train your attention, the more significantly the risk of dementia decreases. For example, resolving problems that require attention decreases the risk of developing dementia in the subsequent 10 years by 29%. Food for the brain is also movement, as is, for example, learning how to play a musical instrument. Studies prove that in a group of identical twins, the twins who studied at a musical school had a 64% lower risk of dementia than those who did not. Observation shows that bilinguals — people who speak two languages alternately, — get Alzheimer’s disease 4,3 years later than people who speak only one language, and that their symptoms manifest 5,1 years later. In general, an increase in brain activity decreases the risk of the development of Alzheimer’s disease by 33% — that’s the effect of knowledge. Communication and high levels of social activity are also important for the brain. Feed your brain with quality food and develop useful social contacts!

We can compare the cognitive reserve to an additional fuel tank that helps our brain to function longer, or with a backup command post that will take control if a problem arises. The conclusion is simple; knowledge can never be excessive. A reserve doesn’t burden you, it protects your brain. The more intellectual a workload you have throughout your whole life, the higher your protection is against brain aging, neurological trauma, and various diseases. The higher your cognitive reserve level, the lower cognitive deficit will appear, even with an already existing disease. That’s exactly why we need to “run as fast as we can to stay in the same place”. Similar reserves exist for other anasystems too like, for example, bone weight. If a person actively does sports during their life, they will have well-developed bones, and with the lowering of bone density caused by aging, they will have a lower risk of osteoporosis than a person with less bone mass.

The reasons for health, not the reasons for diseases. For a long time, most scientists were primarily interested in the question of disease. It was important to find the reasons for their appearance, as well as their methods of treatment and prevention. However, with time, more and more researchers started to put the question differently: “Where does health come from?” After all, even during epidemics, not everyone gets ill. Sometimes, in a stressful situation, only part of a population gets ill, while some others become even stronger instead. With aging, different people experience different trajectories of function change. Is it just luck, or does something help them?

Questions and Assignments

1. In which areas of life do you act much better than required? Why? Which advantages do you receive from this redundancy? Take a look at the different areas of your life and answer honestly, where you are “moderate” and “normal”, and where things go really well. Which improvements would be most desirable for you?

2. How old do you look, and how would you estimate your age? How do others estimate your age? Compare these numbers.

3. Create a list of your debts and reserves. The more reserves you have: finances, skills, knowledge, friends, health, motivation — the better. It would do you good to estimate your personal reserves yearly.