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Thursday, April 25, 2024

Last of ‘The Honeymooners’ dies at age 99

Dr. Gabe Mirkin

Joyce Randolph was a stage and television actress who died of “natural causes” at age 99 on January 13, 2024. She was the last surviving member of the cast of the Jackie Gleason television sitcom “The Honeymooners,” the story of New York City bus driver Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason). The show was about working-class married couples who deal with their absurd lifestyle choices in the Kramden’s kitchen in a Brooklyn apartment building. It was a very highly-rated comedy about the incredibly ridiculous choices Ralph Kramden makes on just about every situation. His choices are so bad that your only response is to laugh every time he decides to do anything. “The Honeymooners” first appeared on CBS television in 1955 and 1956 and quickly became the second top-rated show on television.

“The Honeymooners” characters included: Ralph Kramden, who knew that he was going nowhere in his job as a New York City bus driver so he constantly thought up ways to get rich quick. However, he is so incompetent that he frequently argues and insults most of his contacts. The audience loves him because he loves his wife and is ultimately kind to his best friend, Ed Norton, and other members of the cast. The New York City bus drivers loved him and Ralph Kramden was given honorary membership in the real bus drivers’ union, a Brooklyn bus depot was named after him and an eight-foot bronze statue of Jackie Gleason in a bus driver’s uniform was erected in front of Manhattan’s midtown Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Alice Kramden: Alice was Ralph Kramden’s loving but critical wife who responded to his ridiculous behavior with sarcastic remarks. She is as reasonable as Ralph Kramden is unreasonable and is right as often as Ralph is wrong. Ed Norton: Ed was a New York City sewer cleaner who has such a low level of intelligence that Ralph Kramden constantly tells him how stupid he is, even though he usually agrees to be part of Ralph Norton’s many schemes. Trixie Norton: She was Ed Norton’s wife and Alice’s best friend who was a former burlesque dancer.

Her Most Important Role
Randolph was born in Detroit, MI, in 1924 and moved to New York City in 1943 to pursue a career in acting. Jackie Gleason saw her in a commercial in 1951, and asked her to come on his variety show, a Cavalcade of Stars. She appeared in some skits on Gleason’s “Honeymooners” show and soon had an ongoing role as Alice’s best friend, Trixie. The show was filmed in front of a live audience, and 39 shows were filmed in a single season. Randolph was the last surviving member of the “Honeymooners” cast when she died “of natural causes” at age 99 in her home in Manhattan. When you read about very elderly people dying of “natural causes,” it usually means that they died of heart failure because they spent a lot of time lying in bed. When you become inactive, you lose your skeletal muscles at an alarming rate, and losing skeletal muscle causes loss of heart muscle until your heart can become too weak to pump blood to your brain and you die.

Starling’s Law
In 1914, Dr. Ernest Starling described what is today known as Starling’s Law, which states that strengthening skeletal muscles strengthens heart muscle and not the other way around (Circulation, 2002;106(23):2986-2992). When you contract your skeletal muscles, they squeeze the veins near them to pump extra blood back to your heart. The extra blood flowing back to your heart fills up your heart, which stretches your heart muscle, causing the heart muscle to contract with greater force and pump more blood back your body. This explains why your heart beats faster and harder to pump more blood when you exercise. The harder your heart muscle has to contract regularly in an exercise program, the greater the gain in heart muscle strength.

Severe Loss of Muscle with Aging is Common
Between 25 and 50 percent of North Americans over the age of 65 suffer from severe loss of skeletal muscle (sarcopenia) that is significant enough to limit their daily activities (J Am Geriatr Soc, 2004;52:80–85). An exercise program is the best way to slow down this loss of strength and coordination, but even if you exercise regularly, you will still lose muscle as you age (Aging Male, September-December 2005). After age 40, people lose more than eight percent of their muscle size per decade and by age 70, the rate of muscle loss nearly doubles to 15 percent per decade, markedly increasing risk for disability and disease (Am J Epidemiol, 1998;147(8):755–763; Nutr Rev, May 2003;61(5 Pt 1):157-67).

Loss of Muscle with Aging
The people who lose the most skeletal muscle are usually the ones who die earliest. They are also most at risk for falls and broken bones. Muscles are made up of hundreds of thousands of individual fibers, just as a rope is made up of many strands. Each muscle fiber is innervated by a single motor nerve. With aging you lose motor nerves, and with each loss of a nerve, you also lose the corresponding muscle fiber that it innervates. For example, the vastus medialis muscle in the front of your thigh contains about 800,000 muscle fibers when you are 20, but by age 60, it probably has only about 250,000 fibers. However, after a muscle fiber loses its primary nerve, other nerves covering other fibers can move over to stimulate that fiber in addition to stimulating their own primary muscle fibers.

A regular exercise program can help to slow the loss of muscle fibers and improve mobility (Physiol Rev, Jan 1, 2019;99(1):427-511). Lifelong competitive athletes over 50 who train four to five times per week did not lose as many of the nerves that innervate muscles and therefore retained more muscle size and strength with aging than their non-athlete peers (The Physician and Sportsmedicine, October 2011;39(3):172-8). Lifelong competitive runners over 60 can have almost the same number of muscle fibers as 25-year-olds.

Preventing Muscle Loss
Resistance exercise increases muscle size and strength in older people, but with aging you need to work longer to gain the amount of strength that a younger person would get with the same program (Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2011;43(2):249–58). Competitive masters athletes, 40 to 80 years old, who train four to five times per week, lose far less muscle size or strength than their non-exercising peers (The Physician and Sportsmedicine, October 2011;39(3):172-8). Eighty-year-old men who still compete in sports have been found to have more muscle fibers than inactive younger men (Journal of Applied Physiology, March 24, 2016). Inactivity causes rapid loss of muscle size and strength. If you inactivate a leg by putting it in a cast, you lose a significant amount of muscle size in just four days (Nutrition, Acta Physiol (Oxf), March 2014;210(3):628-41). Prolonged periods of inactivity due to bed rest, injured nerves, casting or even decreasing the force of gravity (in astronauts) causes loss of muscle tissue which leads to insulin resistance, higher blood sugar levels and increased risk for diabetes (Med Hypotheses, 2007;69(2):310-21).

What We Can Learn from Joyce Randolph’s Long Life
A key to prolonging your life and preventing disease is to keep on moving. Lying in bed for many hours each day is a certain way eventually to kill yourself. Each day that you spend not moving your muscles weakens your heart until eventually you can die of heart failure.

  • Exercise will prolong your life, but you do not have to have a specific exercise program. You just need to keep on moving for a large part of each day. It is harmful just to sit or lie down all day long. It is healthful to mow your lawn, wash your dishes, make your bed, vacuum your house, go for a walk, and participate with your friends in activities in which you are moving your arms and legs — dancing, cycling, swimming, running, nature walks and so forth.
  • To gain maximum health benefits from your skeletal muscles, you should include some sort of resistance exercise. If you are not already doing strength-training exercise, first check with your doctor to make sure you do not have any condition that may be harmed by exercise. Caution: Exercise can cause a heart attack in a person who has blocked arteries or heart damage.

Then join a gym or get a personal trainer and ask for instructions on how to use the weight-training equipment. Since lifting heavier weights is far more likely to injure you than lifting lighter weights, I recommend that you lift lighter weights with far more repetitions. Older people, in particular, can lift and lower a light weight up to 100 times in a row. Stop that exercise when the muscles start to feel tight or hurt.

Dr. Gabe Mirkin is a Villager. Learn more at www.drmirkin.com

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