The Most Critical Four Minutes of Your Life

His first brush with death wasn't when John Hinckley Jr. shot him...

Ronald Reagan wasn't president yet on this day in 1976. He was on the campaign trail, tens of thousands of feet in the air.

Suddenly, the staff heard an odd sound. Reagan's face was turning dark red, and he was making a choking sound.

But campaign aide (and future deputy chief of staff) Mike Deaver jumped into action. He gave Reagan a giant bear hug from behind. Deaver then made a fist and punched inward and upward above Reagan's belly button. Another abdominal thrust ejected the would-be killer: an airline peanut. Reagan had been snacking on the quintessential in-flight meal of peanuts and a Coca-Cola.

Thankfully, Deaver knew how to perform this first-aid technique. It was still a new concept back then, invented by (you guessed it) Henry Heimlich just two years prior. Deaver had thought it was a waste of time to learn the Heimlich maneuver. But Reagan had insisted, saying it'd save someone's life someday. And boy, did it come in handy.

As it turns out, we're more likely to die from choking on food than from an airplane crash.

If a loved one's airway is partially blocked, he or she may be able to cough out the offender. And by all means, if this happens, do not give them water – it'll make things worse.

Otherwise, you have just four minutes to get that piece of food dislodged before your loved one suffers brain damage or, worse, dies.

But what if you're at home... alone... and you start choking?

If I've unlocked a new fear for you, good... because you need to know exactly what to do in those four minutes to save your own life.

According to the National Safety Council, choking ranked as the No. 4 cause of accidental deaths in 2022. And 5,554 Americans died from choking that year.

You might think most of those cases are young kids. After all, they have small airways (plus that tendency to experiment with putting random objects in their mouths).

But as it turns out, elderly folks aged 75 and up accounted for nearly 52% of those deaths.

The older we get, the higher our risk of experiencing issues like having missing teeth and/or dentures that keep us from thoroughly chewing up food. Our bodies' natural defense ability, the gag reflex, also tends to weaken.

Health problems common in old age can mess with the complex interplay between our nerves, brain, and skeletal muscles. For instance, a stroke, head and neck cancer, Parkinson's disease, and dementia can all lead to dysphagia, which is the fancy term for having trouble swallowing.

And then there's the fact that roughly 27% of older Americans are living alone. You're as good as dead if you live alone and don't know what to do if you start choking.

Don't just buy one of those anti-choking devices and declare yourself "safe." You need to know a few simple steps to save your life. Knowing them well means you're more likely to remember them in the moment of panic...

1. Call 911. Even if you can't make out a single word, the dispatcher will still send out help. It also pays to be familiar with the built-in "Emergency SOS" shortcut on your smartphone so you'll know the exact swiping and/or tapping steps you'll need to perform to call for help.

2. Make one fist and press it between the bottom of your rib cage and your belly button.

3. Cover that fist with the other hand. Then give a big thrust inward and upward. The large amount of pressure should hopefully force air out of your lungs to pop out the object causing the blockage.

4. If you have trouble moving your arms, find the edge of a chair, table, or railing – whatever is at the same height as where your fists would go. Lean over that edge and slam your torso forward.

5. If you have trouble standing, get in a pushup position and let yourself do a big belly flop onto the floor. (Here's a video of how it works.)

6. Another option is a more novel approach. Research suggests that an upside-down position can help by letting gravity do the work.

Know these techniques. And then make sure you avoid ever having to use them in the first place by preventing yourself from choking...

All you have to do is keep in mind that it's not the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. The slower you lift that fork to your mouth, the more multipronged benefits you'll see:

  • All the extra chewing and saliva mean that the potentially deadly piece of food gets crushed into a much-easier-to-swallow (and digest) slurry.
  • You give your stomach enough time to send signals to your brain that you're full – before you eat too many calories.
  • You have a chance to eat mindfully, where you're focusing on the present moment. That means focusing on all of the wonderful textures, flavors, and smells.
  • Your mindful eating also helps your tongue to feel around for and weed out dangers like, say, a sharp fish bone or another hard object that could crack your tooth or cause expensive dental work.

Avoid making TV dinners a habit. That's practically a requirement for mindful eating. You don't want a distraction from savoring your meal.

Also, keep your smartphone out of reach when trying to eat mindfully. You'll have one less distraction and will avoid its germ-riddled surface.

(After all, you'd be defeating the purpose of your premeal handwashing by touching your phone – which can be teeming with 10 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. On average, we check our phones nearly 50 times a day. Don't let any of those times be during your meals.)

And even if you don't have a Mike Deaver around you, now you know how to save yourself if you do end up choking.

P.S. Being mindful comes in other flavors, too. And one of them is a favorite way of mine to combat a big threat to our health that we're all facing right now... now that the weather is getting hotter. Retirement Millionaire subscribers can check it out right here. Otherwise, you can test-drive a subscription here.

What We're Reading (and Watching)...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 30, 2024