Pumping Irony

Craig Cox, EL’s director of business operations and resident geezer, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

Improve Your Posture, Improve Your Mood

Head up, shoulders back! You'll feel better. Really.

Head up, shoulders back! You’ll feel better. Really.

My old friend Leo has taught me a few things over the years: how to put aside emotions when discussing politics (he’s a longtime political commentator), how to live well on very little money, the importance of community and friends. And, as well as he’s mastered these arts during his 73 years, Leo often seems a little beaten down. You can see it in the way he moves — shuffling forward, shoulders hunched, head down.

So, the other day as we were heading out for one of our monthly lunches and discussing the latest polls in the Kansas senate race, I mentioned that he might feel better if he stood up a little straighter. This apparently had not occurred to him, because when he did he suddenly flashed a grin and later remarked that the pain in his hip and shoulder had subsided.

This was just a hunch on my part — that the way you live in your body can affect the way you feel — but I see now that it’s backed up by research. A study out of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR) suggests that, just as mood can affect one’s posture, the way you walk can affect your mood. In a paper published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, study author Nickolaus Troje explained how participants were shown positive and negative words as they walked on a treadmill and told to walk in certain ways in response to the words.

Later, Troje, a senior fellow at CIFAR, and his colleagues quizzed their volunteers on the words they were shown and compared their recollection with their gait on the treadmill. Those who walked like Leo remembered the negative words more than the positive, which led Troje to conclude that their posture had influenced their mood (clinically depressed people are known to recall negative events much more clearly than positive ones).

I’m not saying my old pal Leo is struggling with some degree of depression (though having covered a political beat myself, I know how effectively it can suppress any sense of optimism), and I’m not suggesting that simply standing up straight is going to get you skipping along on the path to Happyland. But Troje’s research and my own experience (as well as these simple posture-improving tips) tell me that it can’t hurt.

So next time I see Leo, I’m going to remind him to keep his head up and shoulders back — and maybe don’t worry too much about that senate race in Kansas.

Backsliding

This is good for you. Just watch your back.

This is good for you. Just watch your back.

I tweaked my back a couple weeks ago after a too-ambitious round of kettlebell swinging, and I’m still feeling the effects today. I don’t expect any sympathy, though, seeing as how I took my aching back to the golf course later that day and played 18 holes (dumb, I know, but I had a tee time and a foursome) and then, five days later, when I could barely drag myself out of bed as a result of the golfing, I played a set of tennis with The Baseline Machine (dumber, since I really could’ve canceled and avoided the 1-6 drubbing TBM administered). All of which is simply to say: A geezer needs to know his limitations.

So I’ve been trying (with limited success) to avoid lifting heavy objects for the past several days, which is more difficult than you might imagine. It seems that just about everywhere I turn these days there’s something needing to be moved. Yesterday it was junk in the attic, which, like a lot of the stuff that’s bothering my back, didn’t really need to be moved, but I did it anyway, because, well, these things just seem to call to me sometimes. And I keep seeing new research telling me how important it is for old people to lift heavy objects.

About one in three folks over 50 suffer from sarcopenia, or loss of muscle mass, according to a study published in Age and Aging, which can affect mobility, energy, and basic functionality. Beginning at age 40, you can lose up to 8 percent of your muscle mass per decade, a rate that increases to 15 percent when you hit 70.

Still, I know I should take it easy, but I’m always weighing the gratification of getting a project done against the resulting pain of having done the project. And there’s always the loss of muscle mass to consider.

I ran into my esteemed yoga teacher yesterday and told her about my bad back. “You haven’t been listening to your body,” she admonished. “Oh, no, I’ve been listening fine,” I replied. “I just haven’t been obeying.”

Tomorrow, I’m thinking I won’t trudge back up to the attic and lug all that detritus out to the trash. Wouldn’t be good for my back. Instead, I’ll climb onto the old Elliptical Death Machine at the gym and squeeze in a little cardio after work. It’s been awhile. Maybe do a little lifting.

Eat Less to Live Longer

Cut back on those calories and you can be young forever!

Cut back on those calories and you can be young forever!

I like to eat, you like to eat, we all like to eat. But the latest trend in longevity research suggests that you’re going to live longer if you don’t eat too much.

Results of a study out of Washington University School of Medicine, published earlier this month in the journal Cell Metabolism, showed that mice that were fed a low-calorie diet exhibited the signs of aging later in their life than a control group.

That’s because a specific protein, called Sirt1, triggers activity in the brain’s hypothalamus, which apparently makes those mice stronger and more vital. Here’s how lead researcher and study author Shin-ichiro Imai, MD, PhD, put it:

“In our studies of mice that express Sirt1 in the brain [as opposed to body tissue], we found that the skeletal muscular structures of old mice resemble young muscle tissue. Twenty-month-old mice (the equivalent of 70-year-old humans) look as active as five-month-olds.”

When translated to human lifespans, this could mean an extra 14 years for women and seven years for men, Imai explained, in a statement released by the university. And this could mean that scientists may someday be able to locate and manipulate a “control center of aging and longevity” in the brain to “maintain youthful physiology and extend life space in other mammals as well.”

I’m not sure what to make of all this, to be honest. Does it mean that I should cut back on my 2,000-calorie diet if I want to live longer? Or should I just wait for some pill that will send an email to my hypothalamus requesting an extra dose of Sirt1 protein after breakfast?

And if 2,000 calories will keep me hale and hearty into my 80s, why not cut back to 1,800 — or even 1,500 — and see whether my hypothalamus would accompany me into deep old age?

It’s an intriguing thought, but maybe I’ll just take my chances. After all, I like to eat.

Granted Immunity

Ibuprofen: A cure for the aging immune system?

Ibuprofen: A cure for the aging immune system?

I’m happy to report that my mother-in-law, Shirley, continues to improve and will move from a hospice facility into a nursing home today to begin physical therapy. At 85, her body is still resilient enough to fight off the effects of the stroke that sent her to the emergency room two weeks ago. There are many lessons to be learned from this, but the one I think I’ll carry with me is maybe the most obvious: Keep your immune system in good working order as you age and you can survive almost anything.

Even conventional doctors are beginning to figure this out. As Pamela Weintraub noted in a recent issue of EL, so-called integrative oncologists are focusing on their patients’ “terrain” in a more holistic approach to cancer treatment. Boosting the immune system is key to both fighting the cancer and preventing the disease in the first place.

“For almost any chronic disease, inflammation is at the root,” says University of Texas cancer researcher and biochemist Bharat Aggarwal, PhD. “Most cancer starts by the age of 20.” As the body ages, he explains, toxic exposures mount and genetic damage accrues. Depending on inflammation and the overall condition of a person’s terrain, that deterioration may eventually result in a life-threatening cancer, perhaps many years or decades later.”

This is all about healthy eating, exercise, stress management — the basics of good health — but as is often the case with industrial medicine, researchers are always looking for shortcuts. So I was not surprised to learn recently that Ohio State University scientists were hyping the anti-inflammatory benefits of ibuprofen as a way to strengthen the immune systems of geezers like me.

The study, published in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology, showed that ibuprofen boosted the ability of older mice to fight off an infection. In fact, it ramped up their immune systems to the point where it was just as effective as that of the youngsters. “This may give new meaning to the phrase ‘take two aspirins and call me in the morning,'” John Wherry, Ph.D., the journal’s deputy editor, told Science Daily. “The report may not be about aspirin, but it does show that over-the-counter remedies may have broader value than usually appreciated, including by affecting immune functions that change with age.”

Theoretically, at least, this is good news for Geezerville. All I’ve got to do to keep the old immune system in fighting shape is pop a few Tylenol, or any of the other popular NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) available at my local drug store, and I should be good to go.

Probably not a good idea, though. Overuse of NSAIDs sends as many as 100,000 Americans to the hospital every year with gastrointestinal disorders. It can actually impair healing, increase inflammation, and even lead to autoimmune diseases. (Read more about the dangers of NSAIDs here.)

There are no shortcuts to good health or longevity. And no guarantees that all the good things you believe you’re doing to prolong your time on this mortal plane are going to pan out the way you’ve hoped. What Shirley’s taught me in these last couple of weeks is to simply do the best you can, stay positive, and trust your body to roll with the punches.

Oh Death, Where Is Thy Road Map?

My Lovely Wife and I have been spending the past week or so wandering along the borders of that familiar, yet foreign, country called Death and rediscovering its unique topography.

These trips are seldom planned, so when we heard that MLW’s 85-year-old mother had fallen and had been taken to a nearby emergency room, we set out with the idea that we’d pick her up, dust her off, bring her back home, and get on with our weekend. It’s not like she hadn’t fallen before. We soon learned, however, that she’d suffered a stroke and had extensive bleeding on the brain. The prognosis was not good; her doctor told us, quite candidly, that she would not recover.

Shirley had put together a healthcare directive years earlier, so there was no question about heroic measures and no wrenching family debates about feeding tubes and respirators for an independent and loquacious matriarch who quite suddenly could not speak. That was the good news. The bad news was that she wasn’t going to be with us for much longer. And that takes some processing.

Everyone does that in their own way, of course. The great-grandchildren who trooped into her room over the next four days sang, laughed, cried, and generally delivered enough cheerful chaos to keep us all slightly distracted. Shirley’s first-born telephoned from her home in Brussels to tell her what a great mom she’d been. It’s the kind of thing you’d say at a memorial service, she explained, but she wanted to make sure she heard it before it was too late. Through it all, it was the certainty of the prognosis that pushed us along: The terrain ahead was clear and unobstructed by false hopes or wishful thinking. Everyone knew what was coming around the next bend. The doctor told us she’d get there pretty soon.

On Tuesday, Shirley was transferred to a residential hospice facility.  She’d finally been able to eat a little soup that afternoon and swallow a few teaspoons of tepid coffee. And later that evening she ate a bowl of ice cream with such serene delight that I told her I was going to tell the folks at Kemps to get a camera crew in here to film it for a commercial. “You look like you’re in love,” I said. She did not disagree.

When we arrived the following day, she was sitting up in a recliner, holding court. She still wasn’t able to put many words together, but her voice was getting stronger, her face more animated. She was not declining, as expected; and a week after the stroke, hospice staffers began talking about nursing homes and physical therapy — completely new terrain.

The palliative care doctor at the hospital had warned us that Shirley may appear to “rally” a few days before dying, so we don’t quite know what to make of this latest development. We’re all glad to see her showing signs of recovery, of course, but it brings some uncertainty into the trip, the likelihood of peaks and valleys in the road ahead.

But that’s probably the wrong way to look at this. It’s not about us, after all. Shirley’s the one who’s really finding her way. We’re just along for the ride — and all that journey can teach us.

A Birthday Lesson

When all plans had gone awry, a coffeeshop moment produced a delightful surprise.

When all plans had gone awry, a coffeeshop moment produced a delightful surprise.

I got a nice note via Facebook on Saturday from a fellow traveler in Geezerville. She wished me a happy 63rd birthday and noted, quite logically, that “Birthdays are good for you. People who have the most live the longest.”

That’s mathematically indisputable, of course, but it also somehow misses the point. It’s not how long you live that counts. It’s how you live. The years do pile up as we age, and there’s no reason not to celebrate each annual milestone, but if you’re really paying attention, each moment is where real living happens.

I know it sounds dorky, even a bit cliched, but as I get older, I’ve really grown to appreciate those occasions when I’ve been able to be completely present — neither worrying about what I’m supposed to be doing or regretting what I’ve been unable to do. Just being fully in the now.

On Saturday, my plan was for MLW and  me to get out on our bicycles after breakfast, hit Peace Coffee for a mid-morning espresso, then pedal across the freeway to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to wander among an exhibition of drawings by Matisse and other masters, but we didn’t get out the door until noon, which made coffee a bit irrelevant, and by the time we made it into the vicinity of the MIA, it was really time for lunch, after which it seemed more appropriate to launch ourselves further uptown to the Walker Art Center, where an artist-designed mini-golf course beckoned. Unfortunately, lots of other mini-golfers had arrived by the time we did, and we were informed that if we wanted to play, we’d have to cool our jets for the next 2½ hours.

So, off we went to a coffee shop up the street and were rewarded by an out-of-the-blue encounter with a couple from our distant past, now settled in Austin, Texas, who happened to be in town for a wedding. We had a delightful, completely unexpected reunion. Funny how things turn out.

Through all the shifted priorities and serendipities, the idea is to just smile and move on. No expectations. Just let the day unfold. Just let life present you with what it will.

I’ve been reading the late Peter Matthiessen’s masterpiece, The Snow Leopard, which has reminded me of how challenging this all can be. Matthiessen’s book chronicles a three-month journey through the mountains of Nepal, in which the author, a devoted Buddhist practitioner, finds himself mostly unable to rise above the misery and pain he encounters. Hoping to find a lesson from the lama at a remote monastery, Matthiessen instead learns by journey’s end that it was not the holy man, but Tukten, one of his ragged porters, who carried the wisdom he sought.

 “In his life in the moment, in his freedom from attachments, in the simplicity of his everyday example, Tukten has taught me over and over, he is the teacher that I hoped to find.”

I’m not a seeker in the way folks like Matthiessen are, but I do understand the value of simply being as I enter my 64th year. Every moment is as precious as it is ordinary. And to live it completely is to grow old with no regrets — no matter how many years you may have left.

Coffee or Cicadas?

Cicadas singing in your ears? Have another cup of coffee.

Cicadas singing in your ears? Have another cup of coffee.

I started drinking coffee when I was 16, around the same time I discovered the forbidden joys of tobacco. My friends and I would wander into some all-night diner after a movie or following some random mischief and order up a round of joe — black — while lighting up like we knew what we were doing. The coffee would land amidst a cloud of smoke, and we’d lunge in unison for the sugar. The resulting syrup would keep us going for hours.

Cigarettes gradually lost their allure; I scrunched out my last Marlboro the day before my 22nd birthday, 41 years ago. But caffeine was a tougher habit to kick. I needed a couple cups in the morning or I’d head out the door with a nasty headache. No big deal, really; it’s not like I was going to run out of coffee.

Then, about 20 years ago, my afternoons began to be routinely interrupted by sudden heart palpitations. Out of nowhere, my heart would begin racing and my mind would attach itself to calculating the odds that I might be having a heart attack. It really suppressed my productivity.

My Lovely Wife sent me off to our local homeopath, who listened to my story and summed things up quite succinctly: My fairly modest caffeine intake was messing with my ticker. The solution, he said, was very simple: Stop drinking coffee.

The headache thing made this a little more complicated than he realized, but he sent me home with a small tube of coffea crudea — homeopathic caffeine — which somehow painlessly weaned me from caffeine within the week. Today, I still avoid brewed coffee (even decaf), but an occasional whole-milk latte is a sublime reminder of the comfort dispensed by the beloved bean.

This is not a problem, really. A guy can get used to most anything if he puts his mind to it. Like these cicadas in my ears, which whine at a pitch in the vicinity of High C pretty much all the time. No big deal. But, now I hear that there may be cure for this condition, better known as tinnitus: Drink more coffee.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston dug through data on the 65,000 women who participated in the legendary Nurse’s Health Study II and found that those who drank more coffee were less likely to develop tinnitus. “In our study, individuals who had higher caffeine intake, usually in the form of coffee, had a lower risk of subsequently developing tinnitus than those with the lowest intake of caffeine,” lead study author Gary Curhan, MD, told Reuters.

This might be good news for Starbucks, but it doesn’t seem like much of a choice to me: Get back on friendly terms with Joe and risk cardiac arrest or stay the no-caffeine course and retain my free ticket to the cicada concert for the foreseeable future.

Like I say, a guy can get used to most anything.

Two Cheers for Yoga

Ouch.

Ouch.

As I do most Thursday afternoons, I pedaled last week with My Lovely Wife a mile and a half or so over to the eastern shore of Lake Nokomis to spend 90 minutes in the embrace of something resembling yoga. It’s a ritual I’ve been practicing for a few years now, one that seems to have marginally increased my limited geezer flexibility while teaching me the value of patience. Those hamstrings of mine are not going to loosen up anytime soon.

Our weekly yoga adventure is grounded in compassion and forbearance. Our teacher, the ever-indulgent Jinjer Stanton, asks no more of us than she knows we can muster. “You start from where you are” is one of her favorite expressions (and mine). And, except for the poses that test the limits of my poor hammies, it’s generally a pleasant way to pass the time. But’s it’s not what I would call a workout.

So I was slightly vexed today when I read in my local newspaper a piece breathlessly declaring that yoga is no substitute for exercise. “Yoga appears to be too gentle physically to be anyone’s lone exercise,” the writer asserted. “In one of the most interesting studies of the activity to date, experienced yoga enthusiasts performed their favorite type of yoga for an hour in a metabolic chamber that tracked their caloric usage and heart rate. The volunteers then sat quietly in the chamber and also walked on a treadmill at a leisurely 2 mph and a brisker 3 mph pace. Yoga was equivalent to strolling at 2 mph.”

This level of activity, according to the authors of the study, would “not meet recommendations for levels of physical activity for improving or maintaining health or cardiovascular fitness.”

Well, duh.

I don’t know anyone who does yoga who believes it’s a substitute for a broader fitness regimen. That said, I know plenty of really healthy and fit people who only do yoga. None of them, to my knowledge, have ever entered a metabolic chamber, and I’m pretty sure that most of them avoid the dreadmill entirely.

In fact, yoga is a great way to improve your circulation, balance, flexibility, and strength — all things us geezers need to keep in mind as we get older. Plus, I’m told there are cleansing and restorative properties that result from various poses, though these effects may be more ephemeral, especially if, like me, your hammies tend to attract most of your attention while you’re on the mat.

For most of us geezers, the most direct route to a long and healthy life involves a variety of physical activities — cardio stuff, strength training, stress management, and such. It’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Find out what works for you and go for it. And if that includes yoga, just make sure you warn your hamstrings.

The Joy of Manopause

Newlyweds Hugh Hefner, 88, and Chrystal Harris, 28. Poster couple for the geezer virility industry.

Newlyweds Hugh Hefner, 88, and Crystal Harris, 28. Poster couple for the geezer virility industry.

Time magazine this week featured a cover story on “manopause,” highlighting the latest trend in the geezer virility industry — testosterone therapy. It seems guys my age are flocking to these clinics in an effort to stiffen their resolve in the boudior. I think it’s more about trying to realign their reality to match their fantasies.

Lots of interesting things happen to a guy’s body as it slides into advanced middle age, but none is more vexing than when it stops doing what it used to do while in the throes of passion. You go through adolescence and early adulthood with a certain part of your anatomy always on alert (often embarrassingly so), and then one day you discover it just seems to have lost all interest (often embarrassingly so). And then, at some point slightly further down the line, you find (much to your surprise) that you don’t really much care.

This, frankly, can take some getting used to. I mean, most guys spend the greater portion of their adult lives thinking about sex, and to suddenly find that topic plummeting toward the nether regions of your to-do list is quite strange at first. Even a bit frightening, I suppose, if you feel like you’re less of a man if you’re not obsessing about your next roll in the hay.

The geezer virility industry relies upon this sort of thinking for its survival. As long as guys my age harbor adolescent fantasies about conjugal bliss, the makers of Viagra and Cialis, and the clinics offering eternal sexual vigor via testosterone therapy are going to do a brisk business.

Hugh Hefner is the poster boy for this industry. Now 88 years old, the original playboy is married to a 28-year-old model, Crystal Harris. I saw them interviewed on some TV show a couple of years ago, when they were newlyweds, and old Hef waxed poetic about the wonders of the little blue pill.

Now, to be fair, I suppose it’s possible that young Ms. Harris carries with her some expectations for intimacy from her legendary husband, and I suppose any certified geezer who by some odd twist of fate finds himself courting the affections of a much younger partner might have occasion to rely on these products and therapies to meet the demands of the moment.

But, let’s face it, guys: You ain’t Hugh Hefner and neither am I. Most of us are wandering through manopause with wives or partners similarly occupied with the vexations of menopause, a phase that, conveniently enough, features a libido idling mostly in neutral. And if you’ve been together for a couple of decades or more, you both probably understand that this is just another chapter in a long and fascinating journey.

It’s all about companionship now, and while there will always be times when the stars align and you’ll revisit that passion that once seemed so necessary, more often it will be the small gestures of affection that will keep you going. You won’t need any pharmaceuticals to make that happen, no jolt of testosterone to appreciate how much you mean to one another.

Once you get to this place, it’s a lot easier to put this geezer virility thing in its proper perspective. I’m sure old Hef is a happy octogenarian with his young bombshell and a cabinet full of Viagra, but I gotta say, I wouldn’t change places with him for anything.

In Recovery

I hit the gym after work on Friday, but instead of ambling over to the resistance machinery, as I’ve doing in the weeks since I began mixing up my exercise routine, I grabbed a kettle bell and a couple of dumbbells and cranked out my old morning routine: squats, lunges, girevoy. Two days later, I’m having some difficulty accessing objects located below my knees.

It’s my own fault, of course. The machines at the club do not really replicate the lower-body workout you can get with free weights. And it’s a lesson, really, that I should’ve learned a long time ago: Once you stop working certain muscles, the next time you do, you’re going to pay. It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness, a common result of doing physical things your body is not accustomed to doing.

The other takeaway, though, is actually more important. And slightly depressing. The older I get, the longer it takes for my body to recover from my mistakes. It doesn’t express itself when bicycling, as MLW and I did on Saturday (a modest 7 miles), but this morning when I reached for my mat and bench for a little morning zazen, my hip flexors and glutes protested vigorously.

But, rather than push through the stiffness and pain, as I would’ve done in my younger days, I listened carefully and left my kettle bell alone. As the folks at My Generation explain:

Veteran athletes tend to have a sixth sense about their bodies, knowing how long they need to recover from common ailments like ankle sprains, knee pain, back pain and shin splints. Despite the body’s remarkable ability for recovery, it’s not immune to aging, and that recovery time will increase as the body ages. Whereas a sprained ankle might once have been as good as new after a few days or rest, aging athletes must recognize that the same ankle sprain now might require more recovery time. Returning too quickly from an injury can only make things worse for aging athletes, so don’t push yourself.

It is, of course, really easy to find a reason not to work out on a Sunday morning, and the line between injury and indolence can often seem a bit blurry. But, for geezers like me, at least, it always seems prudent to err on the conservative side.

That’s part of the general protocol for aging athletes, which includes taking the time to warm up properly before your workout (does 20 minutes on the Elliptical Death Machine count?), focus on increasing your flexibility (yoga? check), and keep lifting weights (yup). All these things will help you stay fit throughout your time in Geezerville. It’s just that sometimes, like me, you might need a reminder.