Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Few Reminders About Your Health

     It's amazing how fast the calendar pages flip over, especially when you're talking about a certain physical test, one that shall remain unnamed, which everyone is supposed to endure periodically after age 50. The doctor found a polyp in me on the first go 'round. So I have to go every five years. But B, because of her preternatural good health, had a ten year reprieve after her last test. Still, the calendar rolls around, and so it's time for both B and me to undergo this particular humiliation.

     She got hers last week. This time they did, in fact, find a non-cancerous polyp. No worries, the doctor said. Except, much to B's dismay, she now has to go back in five years, not ten.

     I have my test coming up in June. It takes three months to schedule one of these things, because there are a lot of older people around and they all seem to be lining up for this procedure.

     All of this got us thinking about taking care of our health, trying to do the things that not only will allow us to live longer, but also to feel better, be more energetic, more able to do the things we want to do.

     So here are some reminders. Maybe you have a few more?

     1. Get Screened.  Well, we just talked about one type of screening, for colorectal cancer. Presumably, we all get an annual checkup which monitors our blood pressure, cholesterol and a series of other life signs. Many of us, by this stage of our lives, have our own personal problems. I get an annual skin screening because I've had several skin moles removed over the years -- a result, I'm told, of a misspent youth with too much time at the beach. Do you get a mammogram? B hates them; but she does get one occasionally, though not as often as she probably should.

     2. Get Vaccinated.  Flu and pneumonia comprise the seventh leading cause of death among older Americans. We should probably all get the pneumonia vaccine at least once, and the flu vaccine every year in the fall. This year the flu season was bad. Both B and I got shots, even though we knew they were not all that effective. But neither one of us fell to the flu this winter. That's something.

     3. Get some exercise.  Everyone – not just seniors -- should participate in both moderate-intensity aerobic activities as well as muscle-strengthening exercise on a regular basis. B is better at this than I am. She takes the dog for a long walk almost every morning. In fact, right now while I'm sitting on my butt, she's running around the dog park. I do my knee exercises pretty regularly, and I play golf when I can, and I do some walking too, but not as conscientiously as B does.

     4. Eat fruits and vegetables daily. According to the Center for Disease Control, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is linked to reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The recommended "dose" for people over age 65? Five or more servings of fruits and vegetables every day. That seems like a lot of food! But I have fruit every day for breakfast (plus orange juice) and B serves a vegetable (or two) every night for dinner.

     5.  Don't smoke. A no-brainer. But I admit I smoked when I was younger, and even kept up the filthy habit in the form of cigar smoking at our monthly poker game, well into middle age. 

     6. Watch your blood pressure. I used to have low blood pressure. It's gone up a little bit in the past few years. Meanwhile, the CDC says that over 60 million Americas have high blood pressure, and almost half of them do not have it under control. I guess it's not for nothing they call it the Silent Killer.

     7. Get plenty of sleep. I've read that a good night's sleep helps lower blood pressure, and also bolsters your immune system, making your body better able to fight off infection. I found one study that showed people sleeping less than six hours a night have an increased risk for stroke, and a higher risk of cancer. Of course, sleeping well is easier said than done. My go-to technique is reading a book in bed at night. Puts me out every time.

     8. Maintain an active social life. It seems intuitively obvious that people who enjoy a close family life, and/or plenty of friends, feel better, enjoy better health and live longer than people who are lonely and depressed. Being engaged in a community gives people a sense of connection and security -- a reason to get up in the morning and go out and do things. But my theory? I think friends and family help promote healthy behavior such as exercising, eating well, and avoiding self-destructive habits like taking drugs or drinking too much. After all, B is the one who makes me eat my spinach and broccoli. And she's the one I go dancing with. But . . . 

     We went dancing last night. A friend of ours brought a cooler along. He opened it up, and had a McDonald's Shamrock Shake for everyone. So much for friends helping you stay healthy. Anyway, happy St. Patrick's Day. It's only once a year.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Life Is Uncertain

     I read, on average, one book a week. I keep a journal of my books, because otherwise I wouldn't remember them. I consider myself a reader, although I know others who read more than I do. I plowed through Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, at a little more than 500 pages; but there's no way I'm picking up Grant by Ron Chernow. It's over 1000 pages!

     I have a friend who reads, literally, a book a day. He's a fast reader, and I always think he must be skimming; but I find that he often remembers more about a book than I do.

     B, a retired librarian, usually has two or three books going at once. She has an upstairs book and a downstairs book. And very often she's got something else going as well. We both like mysteries, but otherwise we don't read a lot of the same books, just as we don't watch a lot of the same TV programs. (She's currently binge watching Grace & Frankie, a show I tried once but didn't like.) She reads a lot of chick lit and a lot of book-club-type books. I read mysteries and some history and a few biographies.

     Are you a reader? I know not everyone is, which is why I generally don't recommend books on this blog. A lot of people don't care. But I have to point you in the direction of one book I just finished. B read it two years ago when it first came out. It's called When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, a surgeon at Stanford Medical School.

     Here's how the story begins:

     “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurological resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

     He goes on to describe how he lost weight and suffered from back pain, attributing his symptoms to a punishing schedule at the hospital. But he finally gets an X ray, on his way to visit friends in New York. “I'd hoped a few days out of the OR, with adequate sleep, rest and relaxation – in short a taste of normal life – would bring my symptoms back into normal range. But after a day or two it was clear there would be no reprieve.” He goes home early; sees the blurry X-ray, and lies down next to his wife. “I need you,” he says.

     The author then recounts how he got to where he was – growing up in Arizona the son of Indian immigrants, studying English literature at Stanford trying to divine the meaning of life; then after a post-graduate year in England, opting for Yale Medical School, then back to Stanford for his residency. He describes his first experiences cutting up a cadaver; the first death of a patient; his decision to go into neurosurgery where the mind meets the brain, where life meets death, where the meaning of life is never more critical.

     He undergoes one therapy which puts him in remission, and he goes back to work. But again the pain, the exhaustion. The cancer reappears. Before he undergoes chemotherapy he freezes sperm, because the chemo can damage the genes . . . and his wife gets pregnant.

     There's more to the story. So if you want to be inspired by someone's courage and honesty in the face of a life-changing disease, pick up a copy of the book on amazon, or at your library. It's only 230 pages, so you can share his "beautiful mind," even if you're not a big reader.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Best Laid Plans

     We had it all figured out. We were retiring from our high-tax state to a lower-tax state (Pennsylvania is not that low, but it's lower than New York). But we were still staying relatively near our old home and our old friends. Still staying in the Northeast, where we wanted to live.

     But we were also going to a slightly milder climate. Not much; but some. The average daily high temperature in March in our old town is 48 degrees, the average low 29 degrees. In our new town in Pennsylvania, the average high in March is 51 degrees, with an average low of 31. It's just enough so summer and fall last a week or two longer, and spring comes a week or two earlier.

     And then, the plan was, we would go away for at least part of the winter. This year I left in mid-January, after one fairly major snowstorm which found me helping to shovel my neighbor's driveway so it wouldn't get flooded when the next storm arrived, a storm that was predicted to bring rain. So by then I'd seen my one picture-perfect snowstorm. That was enough.

     I left on January 14. Then, come the end of February, B and I started making plans to go back home. We heard about the big storm, Riley, that was wreaking havoc in the Northeast last Friday and Saturday. No problem. We were planning to leave Friday and get home Saturday. Instead, we delayed for a day and let the last of winter blow itself off without us. You see, just as we planned.

     We watched as we drove north, seeing signs of spring all through North Carolina, Virginia, and even into Maryland. They'd petered out by the time we got to Delaware, and they were gone by the time we arrived home.

View this morning from our front door
     There were plenty of tree limbs down from the storm, and we heard that much of the town had lost electricity for somewhere between 24 and 48 hours. But we woke up Monday morning and the sun was shining. We even saw a few daffodils poking up in the side garden. It was warm, and we knew spring was right behind us, and would follow us up north in no time. We'd timed it perfectly.

     Or so we thought.

     And then comes Quinn. We woke up this morning to three or four inches of snow on the ground, and more to come. The driveways and walkways are covered. The street is a slushy mess. More tree limbs litter the yard, torn down by the wind and the heavy, wet snow. It looks like the middle of winter here today. Our only consolation: Here we're expected to get 6 - 9 inches of snow. Back in our old hometown in New York they're predicting 12 - 16 inches.

     And so I reflect back on my college days as an English major, summoning up Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind . . .  "Oh Wind/ If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?"

Saturday, March 3, 2018

How to Lose Weight ... Guaranteed!

     I read recently that the latest studies have cast doubt on the benefits of the low-carb diet. A group of people consuming a high-protein, low-carb diet lost no more weight than the control group consuming a normal diet.

     This doesn't surprise me. I've been around long enough to see the Atkins Diet, the Gluten Free diet, the South Beach diet, the Mediterranean diet, the Paleo diet, and a hundred others come and go. But . . . my diet works, guaranteed. It's called the Do-Everything-But-Eat-It diet. You just follow these principles . . . and don't worry about what anyone else thinks.

     Honest spillage. So the way I got the idea for this diet is by looking down at my shirt and pants the other evening during dinner. I thought I dropped some spaghetti sauce off my fork. Oops, there it is on my sleeve! Next to a bit of egg that somehow found its way there at breakfast. And low and behold, there was some other unidentified stain on my pants . . . maybe from the French fries last night. The dietary lesson? If you spill, drop or otherwise lose 5 to 10 percent of your meal, you have not made a mess. You have cut your calorie intake by 5 to 10 percent!

     A corollary of this technique is to be more discriminating when it comes to leftovers. I swear, B (who, by the way, is thinner than I am, but how she does it I'll never know) will eat a plate of food that's been moldering in the refrigerator for a full week. And she eats leftover pizza. Leftover pizza! Yuck!  Just . . . don't . . .  go . . . there.

     Serious competition. I grew up as the youngest in a family of four kids. I had some serious competition for the mashed potatoes, not so much for the cauliflower. So I developed a taste for the vegetables that nobody else wanted.

     Later on, I would watch people with kids eating in a restaurant. The kids would order a meal, eat about half of it -- and then the dad got the rest. This seemed like a good deal . . . for the dad. So I talked to my wife, and we agreed to have kids. The result? Sure, I gained a little weight. But my kids never got fat.

     However, now the shoe is on the other foot. B and I go out to dinner. Do you want any dessert? asks the waiter. Yeah, I'll have that caramel sundae, says I. Oh, nothing for me, B demurs, just an extra spoon. Well, you can see where this is going. I order dessert, B eats the lion's share of it. And I retain my thin, youthful appearance.

     Inedible meals. The other night B and I went to a fancy restaurant in Charleston. It's been on TV. Cost way too much money. I figured I ought to be a little adventuresome so I ordered the quail, with collard greens and a side of lettuce wrapped pig's ears. I felt very sophisticated. However, the meal was absolutely inedible. The dinner maxed out my credit card. But I consumed less than a hundred calories that evening.

     Similarly, B has a couple of favorite dishes she likes to cook. The other night she fried up some sausage (okay so far), but then in another pan she made broccoli rabe, which is like spinach, only worse. Then she throws it all together with little curly pasta that's impossible to fork up from the plate. So the stuff tastes awful, but even if you did want to eat it, you can't possibly transport it from the plate to your mouth.

     But B likes it. I don't know why. She scarfs down the whole thing; looks at me and smiles. I know you don't like this dinner, she says, so thanks for indulging me. Sure, I went to bed hungry. But who cares if you're hungry when you're asleep?

     The lesson: As long as you're served food that you don't like, you'll never get fat!

     Play with your food. To give credit where credit's due, I got this technique from my daughter. Back when she was a teenager, and becoming a vegetarian (a religion she later gave up), she would lift her chicken breast off the plate, let it hang there dripping over the table, and then start waving it around, complaining in a pained and exasperated voice: How can you ask me to eat dead animals? That's so gross!

     Of course, this kind of behavior, expected from a teenager, is not really acceptable for a grown man. So I use another technique, also inspired by my kids. When they were young, they could never sit still through an entire meal. It was up to me to entertain them -- push away from the table, walk them around, find something else for them to do for a little while.

     So now, many years later, I find that I, myself, can no longer sit through an entire meal either. To this day, halfway through a meal, I find myself getting up from the table and taking a little walk around the house. I come back. The table is cleared. Hey, I wasn't finished with my supper! But it's too late. The dishes are cleared. Oh well, I realize, I wasn't hungry anymore, anyway.

     One last hint, under the heading of play with your food. Order lobster, or mussels, or artichokes. You actually use up more calories fighting for the food than you take in by eating it.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Do You Believe These Myths About Aging?

     It's fair to day that most Americans do not look forward to old age. They fear sickness and disease, their diminished physical and mental capabilities, and the attitude of younger people who often consider them irrelevant, or even amusing. But it turns out that what a lot of people believe about the aging process is wrong. Do you fall for any of these common myths about aging in the 21st century?

     How long we live depends on our genes. We cannot pick our parents, so we are stuck with the genes we were born with. But in reality, how those genes are expressed depends a lot on how we live our lives  Our thoughts, emotions, lifestyles, and how we cope with stress, all go a long way in determining whether certain genes are turned on or off.

     This means we have the power to nurture the good genes and prune back the bad ones. For example, someone may be genetically disposed toward Alzheimer's disease, but whether they actually get Alzheimer's depends largely on their lifestyle, including sleep, diet, stress levels. My brother-in-law, whose father died of heart disease at age 49, never smoked or drank, and he just celebrated his 74th birthday. My ex-wife's older brother, a former marathoner, is the first person in his family to reach age 80.

     Our bodies will get frail and fall apart. Everyone who has been on earth the same amount of time has the same chronological age, but they don't all have the same biological age. Our biological age is based on how well our bodies function, including blood pressure and weight, bone density and cholesterol levels.

     A healthy 60 year old who takes care of herself may be biologically no older than a 40 year old who does not. Anyone can lower their biological age with exercise and good nutrition. One simple example: Harvard Magazine reported that subjects who walked an average of just ten minutes a day lived almost two years longer than those who didn't exercise at all.

     Our sex lives will deteriorate. Our energy levels, of all kinds, depend more on lifestyle and attitude than they do on chronological age. Meditation, restful sleep and exercise are effective ways to pump up energy levels. While it's true that testosterone, the hormone associated with male sex drive, diminishes with age (f.y.i., testosterone levels are higher in the morning, lower at night), the reality is, for men as well as women, sex drive is mainly generated in the head.

     More problematic than aging, for both men and women, are factors such as stress, fatigue, medical conditions and tensions within a relationship. So as long as we can think sexually and communicate our needs and desires, we can remain sexually active – which may not always involve intercourse but can include plenty of other intimate activities.

     We're not as smart as we used to be. B doesn't like me to brag about this, but she was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate at her college. Now one of her go-to phrases is: "I used to be smart." But I keep reminding her of a study from the University of California and Columbia University. Researchers tested a group of 20-somethings against people in their 60s and 70s, in various subjects, and found that despite a general loss of mental acuity, the older group did better than their younger test-takers in almost every category.

     How is that? The younger people were better able to manipulate information and process it quickly. But the older subjects benefited from their knowledge acquired through culture, education and a lifetime of experience. They had more focus, a better perspective and more patience. And for most practical applications – whether buying a house, driving a car, or playing cards – the wisdom that comes with age trumps the quick-mindedness of youth.

     We will get cranky and be unhappy. Not true. Here's what the scientists found out. Studies have consistently shown that happiness declines with age for the first couple of decades of adulthood – even for people who are successful, as many high achievers never seem to fully appreciate their success. People's levels of life satisfaction typically bottom out in their 40s. But then they begin to increase as they age through their 60s. The pattern has become known as the happiness U-curve.

     So take heart in the 2011 study from Stanford University that concluded, "The peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.”