By Stephanie Castillo for Refinery29; Illustrations By Anna Sudit
The people who handle your postmortem remains — from the funeral director to the (if you so choose) anatomy professor — are in a unique position to make an example of your body. They have access to some very personal information regarding your implants, diseases, and snack habits. Tony Weinhaus, PhD (director of anatomy at the University of Minnesota) and Jennifer Wright (embalmer and director of Sunset Funeral Care) say that working with dead bodies allows them to provide knowledge and comfort to students and the deceased person’s family members, respectively. Wright and Dr. Weinhaus also see firsthand how people’s lifestyles and habits factor into their overall health.
“Working with the body, you realize to some degree that it’s a machine,” Dr. Weinhaus says. “Muscles move bones, and the heart is a pump. You can see and appreciate how everything needs to work, [and] how things can go bad pretty easily.” He describes it almost like an eerie episode of Scared Straight: Many of his students don’t think about their own mortality, but when they see diseases lingering in these bodies, they realize very quickly how important it is to prevent chronic conditions — before it’s too late.
Sure, death isn’t as pretty a source of health inspiration as, say, Pinterest — but, that doesn’t make it any less relevant. Here, Dr. Weinhaus and Wright pull back the morgue curtain and share its real stories and health secrets.
As reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and just about everyone else, cardiovascular disease is the number-one cause of death worldwide. Dr. Weinhaus reports that his students find a significant amount of plaque around the carotid arteries of the cadavers they’re examining. These arteries, which are located in the lower neck, are responsible for supplying blood to the brain. Dr. Weinhaus’ cadavers also reveal signs of other heart complications — such as pacemakers that have been inserted to regulate abnormal heartbeats and rhythms.
“Cadavers with pacemakers or defibrillators are great teaching opportunities,” he explains. “They stay in, so students can dissect around them and examine how blood traveled to regulate heartbeat.”
Tip: To avoid heart problems, think preventively. According to WHO, behavioral risk factors are responsible for 80% of coronary heart disease occurrences. Simple lifestyle changes (such as upping fruit and vegetable intake and sweating it out a few times a week) can significantly lower this risk.
Obesity & Diabetes
Harvard Health has previously reported abdominal fat can increase risk for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. “Diabetes has taken away many toes and legs,” says Wright.
Tip: Kill two birds with one stone (or, rather, keep them alive). A study published in The Journal of Applied Physiology finds that a varied workout program can help decrease body fat and improve blood-sugar levels. And, these workouts don’t always have to fall on the intense end of the spectrum. You’d be surprised what a few downward dogs can do for your core.
Skin Problems & Discoloration
Liver conditions such as cirrhosis or hepatitis can lead to jaundice, which causes a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes. “The first response is a fatty liver, and the more this tissue is damaged, the smaller and harder the liver becomes, increasing the chances for jaundice,” Dr. Weinhaus explains. The green bile that an inflamed or infected gallbladder emits can also discolor skin.
Tip: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), women are more at risk for cirrhosis than men. The whole “everything in moderation” thing still rings true, though. Scaling back on those a-little-too-happy hours and greasy foods can do your health a solid.
Related: The Workout That Wards Off The Flu
“There is a staggering difference between smoker and non-smoker lungs,” Dr. Weinhaus says. “Smoker lungs are very black and ugly…students can pinpoint the texture of a developing tumor…and the air sacs in the lungs are just totally destroyed. [It makes] many of my students realize they don’t want to be smokers.”
Tip: You guessed it! Don’t smoke. If you are a smoker, consider quitting — which, by the way, it’s never too late to do. According to a report published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, older adults who finally put out the habit reduced their risk of stroke, heart attack, and cardiovascular disease in as little as five years. Airway inflammation will start to decrease, improving breathing and exercise capacity in the process, says Norman Edelman, MD (former chief medical officer of the American Lung Association) in TIME. Unfortunately, the lungs of a long-time smoker never fully heal, Dr. Edelman adds, especially if the habit has led to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“When you look at a brain, those bumps and grooves are known as the gyri and sulci; the crevices in the brain being the sulci,” Dr. Weinhaus says. “In a person with [advanced] Alzheimer’s, the sulci are deeper than they would be in a brain without the disease.” Depression also causes grey-matter reductions,but it’s too subtle of an illness to be physically detected in the body after death.
Tip: Science is still working on how patients can stop, or at the very least slow, the progression of Alzheimer’s. However, exercising has previously been linked to improving overall brain health and memory. The same goes for meditation.
Cancer is the leading cause of death for clients at Wright’s funeral home. But, beyond lingering tumors and an emaciated body (which can stem from aggressive treatments), cancer can’t always be physically detected in a cadaver. The type of cancer that does have visible markers is esophageal cancer. The esophagus is a tube that moves food from the throat to stomach, and if cancer compromises that tube, surgeons will remove it and rebuild it from parts of your stomach or large intestine, Dr. Weinhaus says. In fact, most of the bodies he has seen in his classroom have had pieces of these organs where the throat would normally be.
Tip: Cancer Research U.K. recently announced a new initiative that will delve deeper into cancer prevention, since “more than four in 10 cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes such as not smoking, keeping a healthy body weight, cutting back on alcohol, eating a healthy diet, keeping active, and staying safe in the sun.” To Wright, cancer is often due to the fact that “we are such a society of convenience,” often consuming processed, quick-to-make foods. While eating organic has not been proven to reduce cancer, it does mean consuming less additives and chemicals that have been linked to cancer.
Unhealthy Arteries & Veins
Wright doesn’t often see organs as an embalmer; this view is reserved for the medical examiners performing autopsies. However, she does see arteries and veins, and she has never seen healthier ones than those in vegetarians. “A healthy artery is rubbery and cream-colored,” she says. Unhealthy ones, on the other hand, “are more of a red color, and extremely thin and delicate… I have embalmed 90-year-old vegetarians who have arteries that look like they belong to a 20-year-old.” Of course, it’s important to note that correlation doesn’t mean causation; Wright can’t prove that meat consumption itself causes unhealthy arteries.
Tip: Many people have issues with meat — from the way farmed animals are mistreated to reports that link meat to increased cancer risk. But, we’re not about to tell you to turn a blind eye to burgers. What we will say is that the quality of meat (grass-fed and organic vs. conventional) as well as the amount we eat makes a difference. Plus, the organic variety tends to be more expensive, which can motivate us to limit it to special occasions. Two words: Meatless Mondays. Giving meat up just once a week lessens your risk for chronic, preventable conditions.
Mortician Caitlin Doughty’s memoir, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From The Crematory chronicles her years spent cremating bodies of all ages and all causes of death. Yet it was the bodies with decubitus ulcers — open wounds on the skin — that left a lasting image. Doughty describes these as a “unique psychological horror.” These types of ulcers often come from extended (think weeks) immobility. As a rule, bedridden patients are required to be moved every few hours; without movement, the body will begin to decay while you’re still living, which results in what Doughty calls “football-sized” wounds. She notes that these ulcers often can’t be avoided, since many hospitals and nursing homes are understaffed.
Tip: While not quite preventative healthcare, choosing a quality care facility is crucial. Sites like Care.com and Healthgrades work to help people do just that.